UK Government and allies support BDS

Rank hypocrisy and shameless double standards are by now the unsurprising hallmarks of the UK Government.  But it has excelled itself in its rapid and enthusiastic conversion to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) now seen as both a morally appropriate, and potentially efficacious, strategy designed, in this case, to persuade Russia to reverse its invasion of Ukraine.  Until this moment, the UK Government, along with allies, has been vehement in its opposition to BDS, specifically in regard to Israel, casting upon it no end of calumnies. 

On the basis that a policy should be expressive of an informing principle, and that consistency in the application of a principle is both desirable and necessary, we are entitled to ask: What circumstances justify the implementation of BDS, and what circumstances appear not to do so?  

Compare and contrast: BDS in respect of Russia and in respect of Israel

The case where BDS has been so vehemently opposed is of course in respect of Israel’s policies and actions towards Palestine and Palestinians. As indicated above, and in contradiction to the stance taken in the Israel/Palestine case, the UK Government and its allies are enthusiastically implementing BDS against Russia and Belarus. 

The scope of this BDS campaign is stunning. By way of example it includes, but is not limited to, moves to curtail Russia’s ability to trade in international markets, to export its oil and natural gas along with wide restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics and maritime technologies.  The EU and the UK are also closing their airspaces to Russian aircraft, including the private jets of Russian oligarchs

Some detail

It hardly needs this article to inform readers of some key features of Russia’s actions in respect of Ukraine. But in seeking to understand what, on the one hand, urges the Government to enthuse about BDS, and on the other, what urges it to deprecate BDS so vehemently, some attention to detail is required.

Ukraine can be characterised as a state that, until now, has been able to exercise its right of self-determination.  A neighbouring state, a relatively powerful one – Russia – commanding in particular military resources far in excess of those available to Ukraine decided, for reasons of its own, that Ukraine was no longer entitled to unfettered self-determination, and it should, in effect, become part of Russia.

One can discuss what precisely might be meant by ‘become part of’, but I think it fair to say that Russia was and is determined to extinguish Ukrainians’ enjoyment of unfettered self-determination. And to this end it launched, and is currently conducting, a brutal military assault that in practice, and inevitably, targets not only an opposing military, but also civilians.

The principle

Aside from Russia seeking to extinguish Ukrainian self-determination, there are no doubt other features that weighed with the UK and its allies as justification for implementing stringent BDS against Russia.  However, it is also surely the case that seeking, by force, to nullify a state’s or people’s capacity for self-determination are grounds enough for BDS to be an appropriate policy response. And what’s true in one case, if similar considerations apply, should be true in another.

Israel/Palestine

Turning now to Israel and its relationship to Palestine/Palestinians what do we find? Once again, it hardly needs this article to inform readers of salient features, but some detail here is useful.

In 1948 Israel pronounced itself an independent state, specifically an independent Jewish state. In order for the Jewish character of the new state to be assured, it was necessary to reduce the number of indigenous Palestinians living within its (then) boundaries. This was achieved by a range of methods including the deployment of significant military might that destroyed Palestinian villages, massacred Palestinians and created an atmosphere of fear such that many Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries.   In establishing for itself the right to self-determination, Israel sought to extinguish fulfilment of this right for Palestinians. And it has, thus far, succeeded. 

Though on a different scale to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, there are distinct similarities between the Russia/Ukraine conflict, and the Israel/Palestinian situation. Both involve the use of force to achieve political goals. Both target civilians. Both Israel and Russia’s aim was, and is, to deny their respective victims the right to self-determination, this denial secured by force of arms. 

On the grounds of consistency, as enumerated above, it’s clear that the UK and its allies would be justified in implementing a policy of BDS against Israel as a whole (see below).   Certainly, there are no grounds to deprecate BDS aimed at Israel, still less to seek legislative authority to ban or curtail it, as is mooted to be the UK’s present intention.

Caveat: 1948 or 1967?

For the purposes of this article, I want now to enter a caveat or variation to what has been said thus far.  The logic of the previous section, as stated, is that it is legitimate to implement BDS against Israel as a whole.  There is, however, a strand of Israel-critical thinking – sometimes characterised as a liberal-left strand – that accepts Israel’s culpability for the oppression of Palestinians dating back to 1948, the establishment of the Israeli state, but is more circumspect about what penalties Israel should suffer as a result.  In the light of this, let us take a different starting point and focus on the 1967 war and Israel’s conquering of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza (OPT).

There can be no argument that Israel is the occupying power in the OPT, an occupation enforced by a combination of the Israeli military (Israel Defence Force) and the semi-military force, the Border Police.

The OPT is under military law. Among the many egregious features of this brutal occupation are the targeting of civilians – children, women, men – the use of live fire, not least against children, the destruction of homes and the necessities for earning a livelihood, the theft of vast areas of Palestinian lands and the establishment of Settlements on stolen Palestinian land. In addition, there are severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement both within the OPT, and in relation to travel (when allowed) between Israel and the OPT.

In terms of the Jewish-only Settlements, although within the OPT areas, they are not under military law, as are OPT Palestinians, but under Israeli civil law. The Settlements are also woven into the fabric of the Israeli economy, and many of the products grown or manufactured there are sold in international markets. Put another way, the ability of the Settlements to trade in international markets means that that aspect of international trade – possibly the Israeli hummus you buy in the supermarket – in effect supports the illegal, apartheid-based Jewish-only Settlements.  For many taking 1967 and the occupation as their starting point, they hold that any BDS measures should be restricted to those that penalise the Settlements, but not Israel as a whole.

BDS justified in case of Israel/Palestine

For the purposes of this article, which is concerned to identify a principle that either justifies, or does not justify, BDS, I have no need to delve further into whether 1948 or 1967 is an appropriate starting point, whatever my personal view might be.

What has been established is, whether 1948 or 1967 is taken as the starting point, in both cases, Israel, by force of arms, by personal and economic oppression, denies, as a matter of state policy, by the minute, by the day, by the week, by the year, by the decade, the right of Palestinian to self-determination.

I have suggested that one aspect of the UK and its allies’ justification for implementing – incredibly stringent – BDS measures against Russia is its aim to nullify, by force of arms, Ukraine’s right to self-determination. There is not a cigarette paper’s distance between the justification for BDS against Russia, and the justification for BDS against Israel, either as a whole, or restricted to the Settlements. The point is, the in principle position is secure. If BDS is justified against Russia, it follows that it is against Israel as a whole, on in relation to Settlements only.

Absurd

It would be absurd to believe that consistency in the application of principle will play any part in determining the UK’s stance on BDS in respect of Israel. But perhaps the UK and its allies, at some level, and unwittingly, have closed the door on some of their justifications for opposing BDS against Israel, and/or its Settlements. Not a minor point if the UK, and indeed at least some of its allies, move legislatively to curtail the promotion or implementation of BDS.

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Stop Press! Threat against Amnesty Apartheid report

The source of immediate threat is from the UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI). They are able to muster formidable legal resources against their chosen targets – essentially those who are Israel-critical or anti-Zionist. They have now asked the Charity Commission to investigate the involvement of Amnesty International Charities in their report ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity’.

Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI, says: ‘The Report is not for the public benefit, but rather consists of misleading and inflammatory allegations that will exacerbate the serious problem of antisemitism in the UK and around the world.’

In a way it is a secondary matter whether this, or other complaints, are justified. The fact a complaint has been made, has a chilling effect.  It also requires the ‘defendant’ to expend time and money attempting to fend of the accusations.


Campaigning for Palestine: Victories, threats, and resolve

There’s been a cluster of events, of which I shall mention only four, that have gladdened the heart, prompted admiration, and that serve to reinforce resolve.

Ambassador sent on her way

One was the protests undertaken by Cambridge University students against the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Tzipi Hotovely. She was giving a speech at that university. The only thing that can be said in Hotovely’s favour is that her appointment presents to the UK the unvarnished truth of Israel’s position vis a vis Palestine and Palestinians.

Hotovely has reportedly denied Palestine’s existence, designated the Nakba ‘a great Arab lie.’, and opposed any Palestinian claim to the occupied West Bank, Gaza, or East al-Quds, at the same time supporting the expansion of Israeli Jewish-only settlements. It’s worth adding that the university students’ actions are, arguably, not an example of ‘no platforming’. The ambassador was representing – she was not speaking as an individual – a country guilty of multiple floutings of humanitarian and international law, a country designated an apartheid state in no less than four reports, the latest by Amnesty International . There is no obligation to offer a platform to the representative of such a state. There are other places where her toxic views will be well-received.

Direct action works

Palestine Action is rightly proclaiming a number of direct-action victories, a key one being the closure of the Elbit (Israeli arms manufacturer) in Oldham.  More widely, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) seems to be recognising that it has little chance of securing convictions against individuals taking conscientious action.  Activists blockaded the UAV Engines factory in Shenstone, Staffordshire, in November 2020, preventing operations at the drone-engine factory. This follows two trials dropped in January – after a ‘not guilty’ verdict delivered in December. Over the past two months, the CPS has failed to secure successful prosecution against any of the 11 activists whom they had charged. (Shades of the acquittal of the – statue overturning – Colston Four.) However, there are potential threats on the horizon, more of which below.

Labour drops case against Jewish woman for alleged antisemitism

Diana Neslen, an 82 year old Jewish woman and Labour Party member, was accused of antisemitism, in particular on the basis of one of her tweets when she said ’the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour and I am an antiracist Jew’. She instructed lawyers to inform Labour that she would bring a lawsuit for discrimination and harassment, claiming that anti-Zionism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

Initially Labour did not respond, but after the Guardian published details of the case it told her they were dropping the investigation. Prior to this, Neslen was sent a ‘reminder of conduct’ the same year (2018) that Labour adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism that included the (so-called) example: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a taste of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ 

Whether because of the threat of legal action, or publicity in the Guardian, or a combination of the two, the dropping of the charge is the appropriate action. There is, however, a wider point to consider, and Diana Neslen makes it well: ‘I’m pleased they dropped it because it exposes the fact that they shouldn’t have done anything in the first place.‘   But she goes on to say, and this is the strategic insight, ‘But I also feel that I would have liked the issue of protected belief to have been addressed because I believe there are a lot of people who also, like me, are anti-Zionist, believe that it’s a perfectly legitimate belief, and they have no recourse.’ I’ll touch on this again in remarks below.

Sheffield Hallam University – the case of Shahd Abusalama

I’ve reported on this in previous blog articles and shared my letter of protest to the university.  Briefly, Shahd was suspended by her employer, Sheffield Hallam University, from teaching her class the evening before it was scheduled to take place. The basis of the suspension were accusations of antisemitism by Jewish News and the Israel lobby group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, two entities whose relationship with truth and accuracy are somewhat strained.  Underpinning the false accusation was the university’s endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, again, more of which later.

Shahd, with ever increasing support, led a magnificent campaign that culminated in what can only be described as a victory. She posted on Twitter:

We’re celebrating a fantastic victory for Palestine…[the university] will not be progressing with any further investigation…I have been wholly exonerated of the false charges of antisemitism, brought under the unfit-for-purpose IHRA definition…I will also be offered a more secure contract…That wouldn’t happen without your support so THANK YOU.’

It needs to be added that Shahd, is reporting in her tweets that she is being subject to continuing attacks by ‘Zionists’.

But considerable threats and barriers remain intact

It’s right to say that Sheffield Hallam University’s reversal of its earlier shameful decision to suspend Shahd’s teaching position is a victory, not only for her, but also for Palestine. It’s one battle won, but, arguably, the current immediate strategic advantage remains with those who oppose Palestinian self-determination.

It is the ‘unfit-for-purpose’ IHRA definition of antisemitism, along with its working examples, that form part of the architecture of strategic threat to achieving justice – between the river and the sea – for Palestinians.  In that regard, it’s good to see that a joint project comprising the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, British Committee for Universities of Palestine and Jews for Justice for Palestinians have created a web site on how to combat the IHRA definition, aimed in particular at universities and local councils. The web site offers comprehensive tool kits suggesting the sort of actions that can be taken along with a range of authoritative opinion and evidence to support the case against adopting, or where already in place, rescinding the IHRA definition.  This is really excellent. The questions remain, however, what more needs to be done, who is yet to be influenced, or rigorously opposed?  Are there lines of attack that have yet to be explored, or revisited?

The thinking of Diana Neslen, quoted above, suggest there is at least one avenue to be explored. As she said, she wished she could have had the opportunity to go to court to make the case that being anti-Zionist was not racist, that it was a protected philosophical belief under Equalities law.  This of course does not presume she would have won if the matter had gone to court.  But the strategic merit of thinking in this type of way is that it focuses on the foundations upon which IHRA rests not only on its individual manifestations.  

The IHRA is not the only strategic threat. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is, here in the UK, under the threat of potential anti-BDS legislation by the current Conservative Government. It’s unclear whether the proposed ban will be limited to local councils and other publicly funded institutions. Robert Jenrick MP, as recently as 15 December 2021 announced that a bill banning the BDS (Boycott Divestment, Sanctions) movement will be presented to Parliament in the coming months. He is also a maximalist in terms of desired scope and has said, ‘Obviously I want it to be as broad as possible so there’s next to no avenue for BDS to continue here.’

The Bridges for Peace web site comments, ‘Given…a significant majority of Parliament seats, it seems reasonable to expect that the Conservative Party will be able to achieve its commitment to ‘boot BDS out of the UK’ in the very near future.’ If successful, the UK will join Austria, Germany and Canada in banning BDS. This must be opposed.

Wider context

The IHRA definition along with threats to BDS are Palestine-specific concerns, though of course they are aspects of wider threats to free speech, and the curtailment of legitimate political action. But fast coming toward us – in fact terrifyingly imminent – are Bills currently before Parliament and, if they hold their course, will soon be law. I refer to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and, potentially on the horizon, the findings of an inquiry into the Human Rights Act 1998.

Whilst the latter two – Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the inquiry into the Human Rights Act 1998 – may seem somewhat remote to the immediate concerns of Palestine supporters and activists, it is not unfeasible that a situation may arise where, for example, a pro-Palestine organisation or individual may wish to seek judicial review of a government or other bodies decision. The proposed Act on judicial review would limit both the grounds on which a review could be instituted, and also the potential scope of remedy.

Similarly, there is no reason to be confident that a conservative-initiated review of Human Rights legislation will result in fundamental rights, not least the right to a fair trial, being comprehensively secured. At present, the Human Rights Act protections apply to, for example, foreign nationals, or people in prison. Given this Government is not ashamed to have as a matter of policy the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ in respect of asylum seekers and refugees, there is reason to be nervous of what may soon come our way.

The imminent threat

But it is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that represents imminent threat, potentially undermining our ability to take to the streets to demonstrate and protest. In brief, some – draconian – proposed measures have been defeated in the House of Lords and can only be reinstituted in a new Bill; that is, the current Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill cannot be the vehicle for reintroducing the fallen measures – it would require a new Bill. There is no reason to be confident that, given the conservatives’ large majority, that this might not be undertaken.

The fallen clauses include proposed offences such as ‘locking on’ or being equipped to lock on to a structure or, I think, a person; causing nuisance; no-suspicion stop and search powers related to protest; and Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (protest banning orders). It is not hard to see how these measures, were they to be reintroduced in a new Bill and become law, would potentially hinder mightily the freedom to demonstrate and protest; and, in particular, place in jeopardy, for instance, Palestine Action.

But these other clauses are still in prospect

There are other clauses, defeated in the Lords but able to be reintroduced into the current Bill by MPs. Once again, with such a large conservative majority, this must be a cause of anxiety – and opposition.

The clauses that can be re-introduced include: Giving police power to impose noise-based restrictions on protest; Giving police power to impose restrictions on public assemblies; Creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Parliament; Criminalising one-person protests; Creating the offence of wilful obstruction of the highway (amended to only include the Strategic Road Network. Again, one can see how these clauses, if law, will hinder, potentially criminalise, legitimate public protest.

Arguably, it is the ‘creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Parliament’ that is so symbolically resonant of the Bill’s spirit. It is to marginalise dissenting voices of any ilk, to neither hear nor see injustices, still less to address them.

Strategic threat, Strategic advantage

This article started on what might be called a ‘high’ – ‘a cluster of events…that have gladdened the heart’ – then headed downhill to consider threats and challenges. But it can’t end there.

Notwithstanding purblind Governments – the UK, Germany, Austria, Hungary, USA, to name but a few – there is the palpable growth of international civil society rallying to the Palestinian cause, in particular, but not only, among younger generations. That’s like having a down payment on the future, for those hearts beat strong. Palestine shall prevail.

Freeing Palestine: Victories, threats, and resolve

There’s been a cluster of events, of which I shall mention only four, that have gladdened the heart, prompted admiration, and that serve to reinforce resolve.

Ambassador sent on her way

One was the protests undertaken by Cambridge University students against the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Tzipi Hotovely. She was giving a speech at that university. The only thing that can be said in Hotovely’s favour is that her appointment presents to the UK the unvarnished truth of Israel’s position vis a vis Palestine and Palestinians.

Hotovely has reportedly denied Palestine’s existence, designated the Nakba ‘a great Arab lie.’, and opposed any Palestinian claim to the occupied West Bank, Gaza, or East al-Quds, at the same time supporting the expansion of Israeli Jewish-only settlements. It’s worth adding that the university students’ actions are, arguably, not an example of ‘no platforming’. The ambassador was representing – she was not speaking as an individual – a country guilty of multiple floutings of humanitarian and international law, a country designated an apartheid state in no less than four reports, the latest by Amnesty International . There is no obligation to offer a platform to the representative of such a state. There are other places where her toxic views will be well-received.

Direct action works

Palestine Action is rightly proclaiming a number of direct-action victories, a key one being the closure of the Elbit (Israeli arms manufacturer) in Oldham.  More widely, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) seems to be recognising that it has little chance of securing convictions against individuals taking conscientious action.  Activists blockaded the UAV Engines factory in Shenstone, Staffordshire, in November 2020, preventing operations at the drone-engine factory. This follows two trials dropped in January – after a ‘not guilty’ verdict delivered in December. Over the past two months, the CPS has failed to secure successful prosecution against any of the 11 activists whom they had charged. (Shades of the acquittal of the – statue overturning – Colston Four.) However, there are potential threats on the horizon, more of which below.

Labour drops case against Jewish woman for alleged antisemitism

Diana Neslen, an 82 year old Jewish woman and Labour Party member, was accused of antisemitism, in particular on the basis of one of her tweets when she said ’the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour and I am an antiracist Jew’. She instructed lawyers to inform Labour that she would bring a lawsuit for discrimination and harassment, claiming that anti-Zionism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

Initially Labour did not respond, but after the Guardian published details of the case it told her they were dropping the investigation. Prior to this, Neslen was sent a ‘reminder of conduct’ the same year (2018) that Labour adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism that included the (so-called) example: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a taste of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ 

Whether because of the threat of legal action, or publicity in the Guardian, or a combination of the two, the dropping of the charge is the appropriate action. There is, however, a wider point to consider, and Diana Neslen makes it well: ‘I’m pleased they dropped it because it exposes the fact that they shouldn’t have done anything in the first place.‘   But she goes on to say, and this is the strategic insight, ‘But I also feel that I would have liked the issue of protected belief to have been addressed because I believe there are a lot of people who also, like me, are anti-Zionist, believe that it’s a perfectly legitimate belief, and they have no recourse.’ I’ll touch on this again in remarks below.

Sheffield Hallam University – the case of Shahd Abusalama

I’ve reported on this in previous blog articles and shared my letter of protest to the university.  Briefly, Shahd was suspended by her employer, Sheffield Hallam University, from teaching her class the evening before it was scheduled to take place. The basis of the suspension were accusations of antisemitism by Jewish News and the Israel lobby group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, two entities whose relationship with truth and accuracy are somewhat strained.  Underpinning the false accusation was the university’s endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, again, more of which later.

Shahd, with ever increasing support, led a magnificent campaign that culminated in what can only be described as a victory. She posted on Twitter:

We’re celebrating a fantastic victory for Palestine…[the university] will not be progressing with any further investigation…I have been wholly exonerated of the false charges of antisemitism, brought under the unfit-for-purpose IHRA definition…I will also be offered a more secure contract…That wouldn’t happen without your support so THANK YOU.’

It needs to be added that Shahd, is reporting in her tweets that she is being subject to continuing attacks by ‘Zionists’.

But considerable threats and barriers remain intact

It’s right to say that Sheffield Hallam University’s reversal of its earlier shameful decision to suspend Shahd’s teaching position is a victory, not only for her, but also for Palestine. It’s one battle won, but, arguably, the current immediate strategic advantage remains with those who oppose Palestinian self-determination.

It is the ‘unfit-for-purpose’ IHRA definition of antisemitism, along with its working examples, that form part of the architecture of strategic threat to achieving justice – between the river and the sea – for Palestinians.  In that regard, it’s good to see that a joint project comprising the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, British Committee for Universities of Palestine and Jews for Justice for Palestinians have created a web site on how to combat the IHRA definition, aimed in particular at universities and local councils. The web site offers comprehensive tool kits suggesting the sort of actions that can be taken along with a range of authoritative opinion and evidence to support the case against adopting, or where already in place, rescinding the IHRA definition.  This is really excellent. The questions remain, however, what more needs to be done, who is yet to be influenced, or rigorously opposed?  Are there lines of attack that have yet to be explored, or revisited?

The thinking of Diana Neslen, quoted above, suggest there is at least one avenue to be explored. As she said, she wished she could have had the opportunity to go to court to make the case that being anti-Zionist was not racist, that it was a protected philosophical belief under Equalities law.  This of course does not presume she would have won if the matter had gone to court.  But the strategic merit of thinking in this type of way is that it focuses on the foundations upon which IHRA rests not only on its individual manifestations.  

The IHRA is not the only strategic threat. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is, here in the UK, under the threat of potential anti-BDS legislation by the current Conservative Government. It’s unclear whether the proposed ban will be limited to local councils and other publicly funded institutions. Robert Jenrick MP, as recently as 15 December 2021 announced that a bill banning the BDS (Boycott Divestment, Sanctions) movement will be presented to Parliament in the coming months. He is also a maximalist in terms of desired scope and has said, ‘Obviously I want it to be as broad as possible so there’s next to no avenue for BDS to continue here.’

The Bridges for Peace web site comments, ‘Given…a significant majority of Parliament seats, it seems reasonable to expect that the Conservative Party will be able to achieve its commitment to ‘boot BDS out of the UK’ in the very near future.’ If successful, the UK will join Austria, Germany and Canada in banning BDS. This must be opposed.

Wider context

The IHRA definition along with threats to BDS are Palestine-specific concerns, though of course they are aspects of wider threats to free speech, and the curtailment of legitimate political action. But fast coming toward us – in fact terrifyingly imminent – are Bills currently before Parliament and, if they hold their course, will soon be law. I refer to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and, potentially on the horizon, the findings of an inquiry into the Human Rights Act 1998.

Whilst the latter two – Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the inquiry into the Human Rights Act 1998 – may seem somewhat remote to the immediate concerns of Palestine supporters and activists, it is not unfeasible that a situation may arise where, for example, a pro-Palestine organisation or individual may wish to seek judicial review of a government or other bodies decision. The proposed Act on judicial review would limit both the grounds on which a review could be instituted, and also the potential scope of remedy.

Similarly, there is no reason to be confident that a conservative-initiated review of Human Rights legislation will result in fundamental rights, not least the right to a fair trial, being comprehensively secured. At present, the Human Rights Act protections apply to, for example, foreign nationals, or people in prison. Given this Government is not ashamed to have as a matter of policy the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ in respect of asylum seekers and refugees, there is reason to be nervous of what may soon come our way.

The imminent threat

But it is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that represents imminent threat, potentially undermining our ability to take to the streets to demonstrate and protest. In brief, some – draconian – proposed measures have been defeated in the House of Lords and can only be reinstituted in a new Bill; that is, the current Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill cannot be the vehicle for reintroducing the fallen measures – it would require a new Bill. There is no reason to be confident that, given the conservatives’ large majority, that this might not be undertaken.

The fallen clauses include proposed offences such as ‘locking on’ or being equipped to lock on to a structure or, I think, a person; causing nuisance; no-suspicion stop and search powers related to protest; and Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (protest banning orders). It is not hard to see how these measures, were they to be reintroduced in a new Bill and become law, would potentially hinder mightily the freedom to demonstrate and protest; and, in particular, place in jeopardy, for instance, Palestine Action.

But these other clauses are still in prospect

There are other clauses, defeated in the Lords but able to be reintroduced into the current Bill by MPs. Once again, with such a large conservative majority, this must be a cause of anxiety – and opposition.

The clauses that can be re-introduced include: Giving police power to impose noise-based restrictions on protest; Giving police power to impose restrictions on public assemblies; Creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Parliament; Criminalising one-person protests; Creating the offence of wilful obstruction of the highway (amended to only include the Strategic Road Network. Again, one can see how these clauses, if law, will hinder, potentially criminalise, legitimate public protest.

Arguably, it is the ‘creating a ‘buffer zone’ around Parliament’ that is so symbolically resonant of the Bill’s spirit. It is to marginalise dissenting voices of any ilk, to neither hear nor see injustices, still less to address them.

Strategic threat, Strategic advantage

This article started on what might be called a ‘high’ – ‘a cluster of events…that have gladdened the heart’ – then headed downhill to consider threats and challenges. But it can’t end there.

Notwithstanding purblind Governments – the UK, Germany, Austria, Hungary, USA, to name but a few – there is the palpable growth of international civil society rallying to the Palestinian cause, in particular, but not only, among younger generations. That’s like having a down payment on the future, for those hearts beat strong. Palestine shall prevail.

Sheffield Hallam University corrects itself in the case of Shahd Abusalama

The immediate purpose of this post is to share with readers Shahd’s – @ShahdAbusalama – heartening announcement on Twitter. Plus a few words of my own. But first, Shahd in her own words:

‘We’re celebrating a fantastic victory for Palestine today @sheffhallamuni will not be progressing with any further investigation of the malicious smears that have been levelled against me.’

‘Therefore, I have been wholly exonerated of the false charges of antisemitism, brought under the unfit-for-purpose IHRA definition.’

‘I will also be offered a more secure contract that will afford my employee status at @sheffhallamuni. That wouldn’t happen without your support. so THANK YOU.’

———————————-

What lies beyond the victory?

For some time it has seemed to me that ‘we’ need to ask ourselves some questions about the nature and scope of ‘our’ response to the IHRA defintion in general. The victory of Shahd is – no word of exaggeration – joyous. But, once the banners are put away for another day, and the protesters disperse, is our task simply to wait for the next assault by the IHRA protagonists, then to gather once more in protest?

Put another way, we know that the Israeli state and its supporters are well-funded and well-organised. Their actions are not simply random eruptions of attack on Palestinians and their allies. Rather, underpinning their individual acts of aggression there is a strategy. So, some questions occur in respect of opposing the IHRA definition and its malign use:

  • Are we acting within a wider, meaningful, overarching, coordinated, strategic approach in combating the IHRA definition and the uses to which it is put?
  • Are we mainly reactive, not sufficiently pro-active?
  • Have we harnessed sufficiently the formidable ethical, intellectual, legal, religious resources that, in principle, are at our disposal?

I think these are important questions – and in posing them, I do not presume the answer. But it seems to me they need to be posed. They need to be posed because, in my view, the IHRA definition represents a strategic threat to the Palestinian cause. It therefore needs a strategic response.

I may make these questions the topic of the next blog article. But in the meantime, I would welcome hearing from people and organisations that think it worthwhile to consider the questions above, and no doubt others.

I have used ‘we’ and ‘our’ in this post. I do this because I’m confident ‘we’ know who we are.

In closing: Hearty congratulations to Shahd. She sparked and led a magnificent campaign.

Latest Position (29.01.2022) on the Shame of Sheffield Hallam University

For this post it is sufficient to quote the words of Shahd Abusalama and to reiterate that the matter is a long way from being settled satisfactorily. The hope is that readers of this blog will add their voice of protest to Sheffield Hallam University.

Shahd Abusalama’s position

I am reinstated, which shows how powerful our voices are when they are joined together. Yet, it’s not over. We need to continue to stand #InSupportOfShahd.

Demand that Sheffield Hallam University reviews its adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism that is designed to protect a racist settler-colonial state and distract from its crimes, and listen to the UCU and staff opposition. #StopIHRA #InSupportOfShahd

Demand that SHU must put policies in place that ensure that Palestinians and pro-justice in Palestine are not subject to such malicious censorship and breach of freedom of speech and confidentiality. #InSupportOfShahd #StopIHRA

The shame of Sheffield Hallam University – letter of protest

Introduction

Along with many others, I have written to Sheffield Hallam University protesting the suspension of Shahd Abusalama from her teaching post. That letter appears below after this brief introduction.

The suspension appears to be based on accusations made by Jewish News and the Israel lobby group Campaign Against Antisemitism that she had been fostering hostility to Jews. She was preparing to teach her first class on 21 January when an administrator informed her the evening before that her class was canceled and her students would be notified.

The basis of the accusation appears to be based on Twitter posts in which she discussed accusations of antisemitism made against a member of the Sheffield Hallam Palestine Society, this arising from a banner created during a banner-making session, which stated “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust”. She made clear that she herself would not use that term in relation to Palestine.

More background can be found here, here,, and here.

My letter:

Professor Sir Chris Husbands
Vice-Chancellor
Sheffield Hallam University
By Email: c.husbands@shu.ac.uk

26 January 2022

Dear Professor Sir Chris Husbands,

Re: The investigation of Shahd Abusalama and cancellation of the class she was scheduled to teach.

According to reports, Ms Abusalama is under investigation by Sheffield Hallam University for social media posts published on Twitter on 4 December 2021.  There is no need to repeat the details here – they have been set out across social media and in other letters to the university – save to say that Ms Abusalama sought to explain what might have motivated Palestinian students to create a banner stating ‘Stop the Palestinian Holocaust’.  At the same time, she made clear that she would not herself have used the term ‘Holocaust’ in the context of Palestine. Ms Abusalama’s speaking about this, apparently, has been sufficient to sustain a prima facia accusation of antisemitism against her.

The first and obvious point to make is that, on the facts of the matter, Ms Abusalama was fulfilling the role of educator and critical interlocutor to the students in an exemplary manner. In other words, her actions, as reported, were directed to explaining, to critiquing, to, in effect, challenging the students’ thinking in respect of linking the term ‘Holocaust’ to Palestinian issues.  An aspect of this process was articulating, and respecting, the perspective of the Palestinian students who created the banner. Anyone who has even the faintest understanding of the brutality daily visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli state should have some insight into the surrounding circumstances that prompted those particular words on that particular banner.      

It is sometime since I attended university, but my understanding has always been that one of the key functions of a university is to serve as a haven where ideas can be freely explored, and challenged, without fear of penalty or retribution. In this matter, it appears that Sheffield Hallam University has been derelict in its duty to secure that space for, in this case, Ms Abusalama and indeed Palestinian students in general.  This should be a cause of shame for your institution.

It appears that the undergirding for the accusation of antisemitism is based on the university’s formal endorsement of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This is a definition that has attracted extensive and authoritative critique and disavowal by scholars – Jewish and not Jewish – legal experts and civil society groups. And, as a Jew, it gives me no comfort at all; and I object to its use in attempting to negate Palestinian voices.   The IHRA definition is a messy, confused, over-embellished jumble of ideas that is having, as predicted, a chilling effect on free speech in relation to Palestine/Israel issues. Indeed, one of the authors of the definition – Kenneth Stern – has made it clear that the IHRA definition is not designed to be a guide as to what constitutes permissible speech in universities.

The definition has in fact become weaponised by those who wish to silence legitimate Israel-critical speech. Your university now stands charged with being complicit in this silencing and is so doing joins those who wish to stifle, indeed erase, Palestinian voices.  It is a shameful for a university to put itself in this position, in effect hollowing-out your university’s own pledge in respect of the IHRA definition:

‘Adoption of this definition will not limit legitimate criticism and debate. The University will continue to uphold and protect the rights of students and staff to hold legitimate debates on issues related to Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.’

In closing, I endorse the demands as formulated by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies that Sheffield Hallam University:

  • immediately inform Ms Abusalama of any accusations against her; of the evidence of any such accusations; and give her the right in consultation with her union to respond to those accusations;
  • uphold Ms Abusalama’s right to freedom of expression such as it is guaranteed under the law, particularly when it comes to speaking about her experiences as a Palestinian refugee from Gaza;
  • publicly apologise to Ms Abusalama for the breach of confidentiality committed against her when the university informed the media of an investigation into her social media posts;
  • revoke the decision to cancel the class she teaches;
  • uphold its duty of care towards Ms Abusalama both as a student and member of staff at Sheffield Hallam University;
  • rescind the use of the IRHA definition of antisemitism as a tool in complaints and disciplinary procedures.

Yours sincerely,

Bernard Spiegal

December 4, 2021. Tuba, South Hebron Hills (David Shulman)

A richly evocative article in words and pictures. It connects readers, as much as any medium can, to the lived experience of the villagers, and Israeli activists supporting them, as they suffer and resist the brutalities of the agents of the Israeli state.

Touching Photographs

Tuba in 2018. credit: Margaret Olin

It’s 8:00 on a winter morning as we arrive in South Hebron, and immediately there is a call: settlers attacking in Tuba. Five of us—Guy, Yigal, Noah, Yossi, me—tear off over the gravel-and-goat paths , through the desert, to Tuba. Guy is driving as if he were flying a plane or flogging a horse. The car careens over the rocks, kicking up dust. They need us. Now.

View original post 1,733 more words

Palestine, Israel and the Labour Party: Is it racism that I see?

Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, struck the right tone in his tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who died on the 26 December 2021. He described Tutu as:

‘a tower of a man and a leader of moral activism’ who ‘dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed…’His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations’.

But his words ring hollow. Starmer’s encomium to the Archbishop sits ill with positions the Labour Party leader has taken on a cause close to the Archbishop’s heart: Palestine.

As is well known, Tutu was a consistent advocate for justice for Palestinians, and a critic of Israel’s repressive policies towards them.  Tutu also drew parallels between Apartheid South Africa and the Israeli state. Here’s the archbishop:

‘I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces…Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.’

The Archbishop was equally explicit on the need and justification for boycotts and sanctions against Israel as non-violent means to persuade/compel Israel to change its policies in respect of Palestine/Palestinians.

In South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime’

The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them’.

Starmer’s position

Some weeks prior to the Archbishop’s death, Starmer had addressed a meeting of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) at which he effectively endorsed, unblinkingly, standard Zionist positions. I’ll come to those further into this post, but first let’s look at Starmer’s position on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).

Notwithstanding Starmer’s tribute to the Archbishop – ‘a tower of a man…leader of moral activism’ – he made it clear to the LFI meeting that:

‘And let me be clear, too, the Labour party does not and will not support BDS….Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state.’

In the light of these remarks alone, Starmer’s tribute to Archbishop Tutu looks like so much posturing. He said the sort of thing he said in his tribute because the occasion demanded it.

The real and present concern must now be that Starmer, with the Parliamentary Labour Party, may end up backing Conservative moves to legislate against BDS. Conservative MP Robert Jenrick has said:

‘What we want to do is pass a piece of legislation…I’m confident that it will be in the next legislative program…in the spring of next year [2022], which will outlaw BDS in the UK… There’s a question of how broad that law can be, obviously I want it to be as broad as possible, so there’s next to no avenue that BDS could continue’

Notwithstanding that a recent survey found that 61% of Labour Party members support the global BDS movement, it seems entirely possible that Starmer could support moves to take legislative measures to curtail it. Whether he does or not, it must strike any democrat as odd that a Labour Party Leader should be so stridently against a non-violent form of political expression.

The architecture of silencing

Turning now to related matters. In an earlier post I discussed the folly of the UK Government banning Hamas – that banning needs to be understood as part of a wider project to stifle Israel-critical opinion.  Where one stifles free speech, and in effect promulgates certain words and ideas as heretical, and others permitted, even required, one comes perilously close to creating the conditions for witch hunts.  We have reached that point.

A key component of the architecture of silencing is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, complete with what are dubbed ‘examples’, a good number of which are designed to place off-limits criticism of Israel.

A witch hunt, notwithstanding its own version of itself, has little interest in impartial, objective evidence. It seeks convictions, findings of guilt. It requires guilty verdicts because they have an effect wider than the individual conviction. The aim is to cower into silence dissenting voices. To stifle heterodox thought even before it is uttered. And if you survey the people and institutions that have been victims – academics, students, opinion formers – of the IHRA definition and its zealots, you will see just how successful they have been.

Once an atmosphere of witch hunt has been created, fantastic propositions, in the form of accusations, can be made and be unquestionably accepted. The reference points that should tether us to informed inquiry – impartiality, objectivity, innocent until proven guilty – become severed.

This can be the only rational explanation for the current pursuit by the Labour Party of at least forty Jewish members of JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour) who are under investigation, charged with antisemitism.  As JVL put it in evidence to the Labour Party:

‘…a new feature is that the Labour Party is targeting those who question its interpretation of antisemitism and in particular its adoption of one particularly, contested definition of antisemitism, in effect determining as antisemitic, and worthy of expulsion, disagreement over the methods used for combating antisemitism.’

In an earlier post I discussed the IHRA definition, and so will not in detail do so again here. But it is perhaps instructive to focus on just one of the ‘examples’ (there are others) simply to see the architecture of silencing in action.

One of the ‘examples’ states: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’

The reference to ‘denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination’ is the intellectual equivalent of throwing sand in your eyes, the better to disorient and blind. Self-determination can take many forms, it has no necessary connection with ideas about statehood. Still less so when the price of Israeli Jewish self-determination as a state spawns the systematic, brutal and sustained denial of Palestinian self-determination.  To discuss this, or point to this, is to offend against this ‘example’ and potentially stand accused of antisemitism.

Similarly, the ‘example’ states that characterising ‘Israel as a racist endeavour’ is, of itself, a potential example of antisemitism.  Readers will know that the Israeli human rights organisation, B’tselem, has found Israel to be an Apartheid state. Human Rights Watch has similarly come to the same conclusion. Archbishop Tutu, of course, sometime before, had compared Israel to South Africa when it was an Apartheid state. But charging Israel with Apartheid is unpermitted speech notwithstanding the evidence.  

Undue influence

Complementary to acts of silencing, is the amplification of, and subservience to, permitted voices.

Starmer had been due to attend (virtually), in April 2021, Open Iftar, a fast-breaking event organised by the Ramadan Tent Project. But he withdrew after objection was raised by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle. The reason? One of the event’s organisers, CEO Omar Salha, supported a boycott of Israeli dates.

Boycotting dates from Israel is a non-violent action, the sort one imagines Archbishop Tutu would support. But this was to no avail in the light of objections from the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle. Tal Ofer, deputy at the Board of Deputies, tweeted: ‘Glad to see that after I raised up this issue, Keir Starmer withdrew his participation at the event.   Labour sources confirmed  that Ofer’s concerns had been taken into consideration by the leader

This is alarming on two levels. One, that the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle seem to wield a disproportionate amount of influence – the power of their voices is amplified and succumbed to. Two, Muslim voices and interests are marginalised, treated with disdain.

This is deeply disturbing, borne out in a survey of Labour Muslim members and supporters which found that some 29% directly experienced Islamophobia in the party; 44% did not believe the party takes the issue of Islamophobia seriously; 48% said they did not have confidence in Labour to deal with Islamophobia effectively.

In addition, 46% of Muslim members and supporters disagreed with the statement ‘I believe the Labour Party represents the Muslim community effectively; 59% said they did not feel ‘well represented by the leadership of the Labour Party’; 56% told the Labour Muslim Network they did not feel that ‘the shadow cabinet team’ put together by Keir Starmer ‘represents the Muslim community effectively’.

The concern about the direction of travel by Labour under Starmer has been echoed in a letter signed by over 25 Palestinian Labour members:

‘Some of us have been members of the party for decades under different leaders and never have we experienced a party environment so hostile and unwelcoming to us as it has been since you took over its leadership,” the statement reads. “Not even during the dark days of the illegal war on Iraq.

“Our community of traditional Labour voters is therefore deeply concerned and alarmed, and we fear that without your immediate action, their growing alienation from the Party will become a permanent rift.”

Malleable and subservient

The question arises, how is it that Starmer can pay such (overly) sensitive heed to concerns about antisemitism, be so malleable in response to particular sectional interests, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Labour Movement to name but three, and yet be the leader of a party that appears to treat with disdain Palestinians, Israel-critical Jews and Muslim members. This against a background of 70% of Muslims reporting they had experienced religion-based prejudice in 2017-2018, whilst more than half of religiously-motivated attacks in 2017-18 (which rocketed by 40% in comparison to the prior year) were directed at Muslims.

A line crossed

There’s something deeply concerning about Starmer’s stance on Israel and Palestine. It’s not simply about policy positions he takes on the issue. It’s as much, perhaps more, about the framework of reference he deploys when addressing them.

At the LFI event, he quoted approvingly an earlier Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who had praised Israeli ‘Social democrats who made the desert flower’.

In referencing this remark, Starmer echoed, and implicitly endorsed, one of the founding myths of state Zionism: that prior to European, Jewish colonisation, Palestine – the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River – was near-barren and essentially uncultivated by the indigenous Palestinians.  The land was simply waiting for beneficent settlement by European Jews.  This essentially racist trope went hand in hand with the self-serving Zionist myth that Palestine was a land without people, for a people without a land. For Palestinians, both phrases are deeply hurtful, and dismissive of their history and agency.  And implicitly racist.

Starmer did not stop there but went on to effectively endorse the notion that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism. This is to muddle two distinct concepts: anti-Zionism is a political stance that opposes the colonial, racist ideology underpinning the Israeli State. Antisemitism is the hating of Jews, because they are Jews. The effect of Starmer’s words is to add to the lexicon of heretical, impermissible speech – anti-Zionism now defined as antisemitism. 

In April 2020 Starmer said ‘I support Zionism without qualification’. Without qualification? 

Without noticing the militant Zionist Settlers, who daily attack Palestinians and steal their land? Without regard for non-trial administrative detention of Palestinians, adults and children for six month and more at a time?  Without uttering a peep against the Israel Basic Law, one of the clauses being ‘The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’?

The whiff of racism?

This thoroughly depressing post is not intended as an ad hominem attack on the Leader of the Labour Party. Rather, it is an attempt to highlight what are, at base, modes of thought and ideological orientations that are deeply disturbing.

If we consider the stated positions of the Labour leader on Palestine/Israel/Zionism/antisemitism as set out above, and take full account of Muslim and Palestinians (Christians and Muslim) experience of Labour under Starmer, then it is unavoidable to detect the whiff of racism – conscious or otherwise – seeping into Labour’s thought and action. If that’s correct, it is both intolerable, and shameful.

Hamas and the politics of silencing

It is not to be supposed the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in announcing her ban on the political wing of Hamas, that she based her proposed policy on a dispassionate, objective consideration of Palestine/Israel issues.  Rather, her motivations are in part domestic, the proposed ban pandering to the strong UK Zionist lobby, not least in the Conservative Party; and, in part, to further bolster Israel’s determination to avoid any possibility of having to curb its expansionist, colonising project between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. However, if history teaches anything, it is that stifling voices one finds uncongenial prolongs conflict, rather than addresses its causes and manifestations.

Depressingly, though of no surprise, Patel, in part justification for banning Hamas, prayed in aid that ever-ready-to-hand blanket justification ‘the fight against anti-Semitism’. Somehow, the fight against anti-Semitism in the UK is, apparently, to be much aided by banning Hamas in this country.

Patel, of course, comes to Middle East issues tainted by questionable, indeed condemned, resigning issue behaviour, this in respect of her earlier under-the-table dealings with Israel. 

The Home Secretary has form in this part of the Middle East. A supporter of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI),  Patel caused a British media scandal when, in August 2017, whilst then the UK minister for international development, she used the cover of a ‘holiday’ in Israel to attend a series of secret meetings with Israeli ministers organised by the CFI.  The meetings were in defiance of UK ministerial rules which require a civil servant to take notes of any discussion. This did not occur – there is no way of knowing exactly what was discussed at the meetings. The scandal resulted in her resignation in November of that year.

Malign, Tiggerish zeal

But Patel, now Home Secretary, has bounced back with malign Tiggerish zeal as the scourge of would-be refugees and asylum seekers, whilst at the same time piloting through Parliament measures that will curb the right to protest. So, if you feel you should attend a public demonstration in favour of a more humane refugee and asylum policy, or in support of justice for Palestine, or indeed Hamas, well, watch out, you may be heading for trouble with the law.

But particularly in relation to Hamas, now that it is listed as a terrorist organisation, you and I would be committing an offence if we held a meeting with them. The Hamas which, as indicated above, won the democratic election of 2006 – overturned at the behest of the ‘democratic’ governments of the USA and Israel – and which, in a recent poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, found that 53 percent of Palestinians agree with the statement ‘Hamas is most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people,’ versus only 14 percent who say the same of Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas. Yet Western governments efforts are directed to propping up the widely discredited PA and its leader.

Self-wounding

The ban on Hamas is not only scandalously inappropriate in terms of the politics of the Middle East, it is also an egregious assault on the democratic norms assumed to be held dear here in the UK. The ban on Hamas – we are not allowed to speak with it, nor hear it – is a ban on knowing and understanding the perspective of an organisation which, whether we like it or not, has significant support among Palestinians.  The corollary to this is that our sources of information about Palestine/Israel will not only be more limited than they might otherwise have been; they will also be, almost by definition, inherently distorted and unbalanced.  

Mainstream media, already in general woeful in its coverage of Palestine/Israel issues, both in terms of the extent of its coverage, but also in how coverage is framed, will now be institutionally incapable of informing us of the full range of factors, actors and perspectives that affect the Palestine/Israel issue.

We’ve been here before

We’ve been here before.  In 2003 the EU made the decision to add Hamas to a list of terrorist organisations, a policy promoted ‘largely as a result of efforts made by Jack Straw’[1], at that time the UK’s foreign secretary under Tony Blair’s premiership. However, in 2006 Straw changed his position, telling Journalists that the West should be talking to Hamas because it had won the 2006 elections. Straw was sacked once his position became publicly known[2].

But, as if to demonstrate the purblind futility, the utter counter-productiveness, of pursuing a no recognition, no talks policy, be that with the IRA, the Taliban or, in this case, Hamas, Blair, by now ex-Prime Minister, and about to resign as envoy to Middle East Quartet – UN, USA, EU, Russia – held six meetings between 2015 – 2017 with Khaled Meshaal of Hamas’s political bureau.

In a 2017 interview, Blair regretted excluding Hamas from dialogue, and admitted that he was wrong to succumb to Israeli pressure to support the 2006 blockade of Gaza. ‘In retrospect, he said, ‘I think we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into dialogue and shifted their positions’.  

Blair, perhaps, would have benefited from heeding Eliza Manningham-Buller, former director of MI5 (UK’s internal security service) 2002-2007 who pointedly said ‘Terrorism is resolved through politics and economics not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play.’

We’ve been here before – favouring bans and proscriptions of organisations deemed to be ‘terrorist’.  Such moves often add up to no more than gesture politics, though with potential lethal consequences as legitimate channels of communication are closed down.

None of which deters Israel in its quest to silence, indeed erase, authentic Palestinian voices. Hence its attempts to label as terrorists and ban six legitimate human rights organisations[3]. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders said ‘human rights defenders are not terrorists and should never be smeared like this.’ The targeted groups include “key partners” of the UN Human Rights Office in the West Bank and Gaza.

Trapped by its own self-conception

Israel has a congenital reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people whose land it has stolen, and continues to steal. Israel, by its own self-definition – see its Basic Law of 2018 – is founded on ethno-religious principles and thus rightly found to be an apartheid, racist state, not least by its own Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem.

At its core, racism, by its own logic, cleaves to notions of purity. It is therefore obsessional in its quest to delineate firm and clear boundaries between categories of people based on, for example, skin colour, ideas about blood, and for the Israeli state, in terms of an ethno-religious category that it designates ‘Jewish’.  

Purity abhors, cannot tolerate, the possibility of contamination, of permeable boundaries. Israel, as currently constituted, cannot contemplate deviation from the exclusivist nature of its state as expressed in, for example Clauses 1B & 1C of its Basic Law:

  • The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfils its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
  • The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

Israel recognises, though does not say, that were it to engage with Palestinians in good faith, addressing key outstanding issues, that would necessarily call into question the fundamental provisions of the Basic Law.  A good faith engagement would, by implication, represent an existential threat to Israel’s current self-conception and manner of existence.  It would have to move from building spiritual, metaphorical, psychological and material barriers around itself, and instead hear what it wishes not to hear; and to see in itself, that which it so assiduously strives not to see. 

Acting in good faith implies that the state will have to accept that boundaries can be both fuzzy and permeable. And be all the better for that.


[1] Source: The masking of Hamas’s foreign policy, by Daud Abdull

[2] ibid

[3] The six organisations are: Al-Haq, a human rights group, Addameer, Defence for Children International – Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. 

As Olive Harvest Begins, Israeli Soldiers Prevent Palestinians From Reaching Their Groves

I reproduce without comment an article in Haaretz by Amira Hass, dated 17 October 2021

Amira Hass

When it isn’t the settlers who try to directly disrupt Palestinians’ olive picking, it’s the Israeli army that prevents it from taking place

Israeli soldiers detaining Mohammed al-Khatib, who had come with others to harvest olives, near Salfit in the West Bank.Credit: Matan Golan

Mohammed al-Khatib from the village of Bil’in uses every opportunity he has to talk to soldiers, in Hebrew. Even after they beat him, laid him on the ground and detained him, even after one of the soldiers imperiously placed his foot on Mohammed’s back, which is what happened last Monday near the West Bank town of Salfit.

“I like talking to young soldiers, explaining the occupation to them,” he said. “‘What do you mean by occupation,’ they ask, ‘you Palestinians can do whatever you like.’ And I tell them: ‘Don’t you believe me that a Palestinian cannot build on his own land? Look it up on the internet. Don’t just listen to your officers.’” He was talking to Haaretz two days after being detained for a much shorter than is usual under the circumstances described below.

Khatib has forgotten how many times he’s been arrested for his activity in the popular committees fighting against the separation barrier. The reason for his arrest this time was picking olives. Groups of volunteers are spreading out across the West Bank these days to help with the olive harvest, especially in areas that are prone to violence by Israelis living in adjacent illegal outposts.

Since the beginning of this year’s harvest season, October 3, until October 16, Israeli citizens in the West Bank have sabotaged the harvest 18 times either by direct physical attacks on farmers, or by cutting and breaking trees or stealing the crops.

Volunteers who came to harvest olives near Salfit in the West Bank found the area taped off and declared a closed military zone.Credit: Matan Golan

Among the volunteers is a group called Faz’a, established a year ago. Khatib was one of its initiators. The group strives to revive the tradition of volunteerism and mutual aid that characterized Palestinian society in the 1970s and ’80s.

When it isn’t the settlers who try to directly disrupt the olive picking, it’s the army that prevents it from taking place. This is what happened last Monday at a grove in the al-Ras area near Salfit, north of the settlement of Ariel. Just over a year ago, an illegal outpost called Nof Avi was established there. Since then, the owners of the grove can only view their plot from a distance. Now that the olives are ripe, volunteers were called to joining the farmers, on the assumption that large numbers would protect the latter from Israeli violence and allow for a speedier completion of the harvest, before the olives might be stolen.

When the volunteers arrived at around 8:30 in the morning, they were surprised to find “a hysterical number of soldiers,” as Israeli activist Gil Hamerschlag told Haaretz. The soldiers stretched a tape between some posts they had driven into the ground. To the tape were attached several notices, in English and Arabic, declaring the area a closed military zone. According to activists who were there, the soldiers did not present them with a signed closure order (this was presented in court the following day). In any case, the activists took care to remain outside the marked area, deciding to walk to the grove from another direction. This too was prevented by the soldiers.

Khatib says that he didn’t expect the area to be closed. “It’s true that on top of the hill there is a settler who has taken over the hill. But we were coming to protect something legal, like olive picking, against something illegal, the violence of settlers. If the army were truly worried about the safety of that settler, why didn’t they place the soldiers around the illegal structures of the outpost? Why prevent the olive picking? It all revolves around a decision by the commander.

“The previous day we picked olives in the groves of Beita. For that we had to go through an outpost [Evyatar]. The army didn’t bother us and there were no problems. In other words, the decision about whether there is quiet or not is in the hands of the military commander. We come to pick olives; we’re not interested in tensions. It’s not a provocation, but we refuse to coordinate with the army in advance in order to reach a private grove, only because a settler has taken over Palestinian land. Because of this one outpost, the land has not been ploughed all year in that grove; it’s full of thorns.”

Khatib arrived there a bit late, saying that he didn’t see the tape marking off the “closed military zone.” He saw soldiers denying access and joined the other activists. Khatib, who studied law, says that during his detention “one officer told me that if there is a closure order, that means it’s Israeli land. He knows nothing about the law. What logic! The settler is the one breaking the law, I’m abiding by it, and you claim that I’m the transgressor.”

Volunteers who came to harvest olives near Salfit in the West Bank found the area taped off and declared a closed military zone.Credit: Matan Golan 

Even though the activists moved away, the soldiers approached them and started pushing them. “I argued with the officer: ‘Why are you pushing us? I have a right to pick olives.’ I heard a junior officer telling the commander that he wanted to arrest two people. He asked for permission and got it. I told them: ‘You can arrest me, but what did I do?’ He said I was under detention. I raised my arms. A few activists came and extricated me, and then a few soldiers pounced on me, maybe five or six, and started beating me. I didn’t feel anything then, but later, in detention, I noticed it was difficult to move my neck. They laid me on the ground facing down, and one of them stepped heavily on my back.” Photographer Matan Golan had the impression that the major, seen in a video running toward the soldier stepping on Khatib, was not pleased with what was happening, and indeed, when he arrived, the foot was taken off Khatib’s back. At this point, the soldiers started lobbing stun grenades at the volunteers.

In responding to Haaretz, the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson stuck to the claim that there had been “a violent disruption of public order near the farm [illegal outpost] of Nof Avi,” and that the volunteers had violated a closure order which was presented to them and had used violence against soldiers. The spokesperson also stated that “the force responded with demonstration-dispersal methods, arresting three suspects. One of them behaved violently toward a soldier and behaved wildly during his arrest, even trying to escape. The soldiers therefore needed to use physical force in order to complete his detention. The conduct of the soldier [who stepped on his back] is unacceptable.”

It was 10 in the morning when soldiers handcuffed Khatib’s hands behind his back, blindfolding him and taking him to the grove, closer to the outpost. Two Israeli detainees, Hammerschlag and activist David Shalev, were already sitting there. Their hands were also cuffed behind their backs but their eyes were uncovered. The two remarked about the different treatment and one of the soldiers removed the blindfold from Khatib’s eyes. After two and a half or three hours, during which the three sat on the ground in handcuffs, soldiers blindfolded all three and put them on a jeep that took them to the nearest police station, in Ariel.

While they were waiting in a detention cell, they heard a police officer talking with one of the soldiers who had arrested them, the only one still there. Their impression was that the officer was instructing the soldier on how to shape the evidence supporting the arrest. Khatib said he stood near the door and heard the police officer explaining to the soldier that violation of a closure is insufficient reason for detention, which is why it should be noted that the Palestinian assaulted the soldiers. Khatib says the soldier said he didn’t assault anyone, only causing a disturbance, and the policeman said that this wasn’t sufficient. Hammerschlag says he heard the officer asking if Khatib had pulled the soldier’s rifle, as a hint of what could be noted in the evidence supporting the arrest (the Judea and Samaria District has not commented on this so far).

An olive harvest volunteer being handcuffed by an Israeli soldier near Salfit in the West Bank, last week.Credit: Matan Golan

After that, the three were split up. The Israelis were taken to Hadarim prison in Israel and Khatib to a detention facility at the military base of Hawara, south of Nablus. Israeli law requires a suspect to be brought before a judge within 24 hours of his arrest. Military law prevailing in the West Bank allows a Palestinian suspect to be held for up to 96 hours without being brought before a judge. In fact, Hammerschlag and Shalev were given the opportunity of being released on some conditions while they were still in Ariel. They refused, claiming they had committed no transgression.

Their refusal to be released immediately made it easier for the lawyer representing the three, Riham Nasra, from the law offices of Michal Pomeranz, to get Khatib released before the 96 hours were up. On Monday afternoon she filed a request for his immediate release, which require the military court’s secretariat to convene a earlier hearing session. This is no trivial matter. Given the abundance of prisoners, attorneys in the West Bank have grown accustomed to a minimum of four days’ detention, without even trying to obtain a release earlier.

On Tuesday, the two Israelis were brought to a court in Petah Tikva. The police asked for an extension of Hammerschlag’s detention and an order prohibiting Shalev from going to the olive grove for 15 days, so that “the investigation could be completed.” Nasra showed a video that proved the detainees’ version. If the soldiers had a video showing the opposite, the police would have been happy to show it. Judge Liat Har Zion concluded that the police could complete its investigation even if the two were released. Nasra immediately sent the minutes to the military court in Salem, in the northern West Bank, drove there and demanded an immediate ruling on Khatib’s release. At 4:30 P.M. a decision was taken to hold a session at 4:45.

Khatib remained at the detention facility in Hawara, participating in the session via video conference. The judge, Lt. Col. Samzar Shagog, said that there was “reasonable grounds to suspect that Khatib had pushed soldiers and tried to enter a closed military zone,” but he released him, with Khatib having to post personal bail amounting to 1,000 shekels ($310).

On Tuesday, at 6:30 P.M., Khatib was released. On Friday and Saturday, he was picking olives in Burin.