The Anti-Semitism Row

Tim Pendry responds to our intern’s blog on the Labour Anti-Semitism row, which he views as a little naive politically. He writes as an independent observer sympathetic to Corbyn’s position on this particular matter. We would view his perspective as being similar to that of a mainstream Labour activist, though not a viewpoint universally held:

We can start with two propositions which are uncomfortable for some activists.

The first is that free speech, as an Enlightenment Project, should be as close to absolute as possible in any political movement that purports to represent the Left and yet it is clear that there has been increasing pressure, mostly from authoritarian elements in society, to restrict that freedom so that defence of free speech has largely and unfortunately fallen into the hands of conservatives and then populists.

The second is that a British political party should be primarily concerned with the welfare of the British people (of all faiths) and should not become the plaything of struggles in foreign lands or allow itself to be directly or indirectly influenced by the interests of a foreign power. The Labour Party got itself into this mess originally by permitting far too much influence to activists more concerned with Middle Eastern politics than social change because it was greedy for votes from new immigrant communities.

This opened the door to Jewish activists whose primary interest (in this debate) was undoubtedly the protection of political support for the state of Israel which was pretty well taken for granted in the higher ranks of the Party until Corbyn was elected Leader. This is all a matter of indifference to most working people who are actually not in the least antisemitic but commit the crime of utter indifference to both sides in this tiresome and eternal squabble.

In this atmosphere of political warfare, it is naive to think that the IHRA guidelines came out of some objective analysis of antisemitism above and beyond these politics. They did not. They are the culmination of a process of linking the narrative of antisemitism and the holocaust to the existence of Israel and then making the definition of antisemitism implicitly include criticism of Israel. So let us take the four guidelines and give another interpretation (since the author’s interpretation is actually fair if one wishes to interpret them that way but there are other interpretations).

  1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Unfortunately, this is actually a fair criticism from many Jewish activists who do place loyalty to Israel and to the Jewish community ahead of the interests of their own nation. The ‘soft’ version is an unspoken and unthinking assumption that the interests of the UK and Israel are identical. They are not necessarily so. We must be free to call out any community within the country, including Muslims of course, who place their original homeland or their community’s interests or even (in extremis) their faith ahead of the interests of the UK as a whole and certainly of the British working population.
  2. “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.” This is fair since it is clear that Judaism is not racist. However, Zionism is. by definition, ethnicist. There is a slippery slope here given the inability of many modern liberals not to be able to draw the distinction between ethnicity and racism. The existence of the State of Israel is very much an ethnicist endeavour and we must be free to say so.
  3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This is a fair concern but, again, we have to consider context. Israel claims to be a Western democratic outpost and it is surrounded by non-democratic illiberal countries. There is no comparison. However, Israel’s conduct can and should be compared (even if there may be sound security reasons for the differences) with the way, say, Sweden or Ireland may conduct matters. The clause is clear – it is not ‘of any other nation’ but ‘of any other democratic nation’. While recognising that Israel is largely democratic (though only so because most Palestinians have left), we must be free to compare it if we so wish to the other democratic nations of which it claims kinship.
  4. “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is a difficult one but free speech is not about sensitivity, it is about freedom. There is no fair way of claiming the State of Israel behaves like the Nazi State but this should be dealt with in terms of the facts and not sensitivity when, seventy years after the event and with more knowledge of the general scale of man’s inhumanity to man, under conditions where a nation owns the nuclear bomb and has a preparedness to use it, we all know in our hearts that the holocaust narrative has two aspects – as tragic history and as propaganda. What we must be free to say is that there are similarities perhaps between some aspects of national socialism and some aspects of all forms of ethnicist nationalism and perhaps, if evidence can be provided, even in military techniques against settlement or in ‘lebensraum’. An intelligent person would only make the lightest of historical comparisons if they believed them to be true because there is no evidence of the racial politics or chaotics of the German dictatorship but he or she must be allowed to make these comparisons in good faith as a matter of free speech.

The ‘Zionist’ or Jewish activist pressure on the Labour Leadership is purely political, a continuation by other means of a project to recover an influence over the British Left taken for granted over many decades. It is the wrong struggle. The right struggle would have been to ask why the worst sort of faith-based obscurantism has been imported into the Party’s inner city wards without sufficient challenge. Any antisemitism arising from poorly educated Islamists is a mere symptom of something infinitely more concerning – the steady unravelling of Enlightenment values for contingent political advantage across a wide front.

As to ‘feelings’ this represents the decadence of our politics. Politics should be about principle and not pandering to ‘feelings’. The crisis certainly cannot be averted by pandering to a demand that a few inappropriate clauses of the IHRA guidelines are accepted just to defuse the crisis – it simply creates a new crisis, one of the ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. The crisis can be averted by staying strong on the principle of free speech but taking a tough line on antisemitism (as opposed to criticism of Israel) where it appears alongside all other forms of racial or ethnicist politics including perhaps aspects of Corbyn’s treasured Irish republicanism and the clan politics of the migrant inner cities.

Labour must find better ways to criticise Israel’s Government

Labour has strong reason to criticise the Israel’s government and to speak up for the rights of Palestinians. Although they are going about it in completely the wrong way. On Tuesday, Labour finally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism with its full eleven working examples. Adding the four of which they had previously left out of their code of conduct. Labour also added a caveat expressing the need for freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians. However, the lateness of this seems to be out of as much out of a need to alleviate the mounting pressure in the media as it is an action to fight anti-Semitism.

The adoption of the internationally recognised IHRA definitions represent for many in the Jewish community a key symbolic step in the fight against anti-Semitism. By viewing these guidelines as contentious, Labour has put themselves in a tricky position. This position conflates their rightly founded criticism of policies of Israel’s government and advocacy of Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism.

By not initially accepting the full IHRA definitions, they have shown a lack of understanding of the views of many in the Jewish community. Many in Labour say agreeing to the guidelines puts them in a position where they cannot criticise the acts of the Israeli government. However, the IHRA does still allow for this criticism. The four previously omitted examples of anti-Semitism include:

  • “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” This example does not mean that the Israel’s government cannot be criticised
  • “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. This does not mean that Palestine doesn’t have the right to self-determination and does not define any specific land boundaries.
  • “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This does not mean we should stop criticising Israel’s government but perhaps does signal the need to further criticise the current and past behaviour of many democratic nations.
  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This does not mean Israel’s policy is exempt from strong criticism but calls for criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians in a way which still respects sensitivity to the issue of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Although Labour did agree to add these four examples on Tuesday, it also added a caveat that states: “this does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians”. It is not necessarily the content of the caveat which is the problem, but its symbolic placement. This undermines the IHRA definitions by suggesting that they do not allow for strong criticism of the Israeli state’s policies and the expression of Palestinian rights.

The effect of Labour’s poor management

Labour’s handling of this situation has had two key negative effects. Firstly, it has shown disregard for the feelings of many Jewish people inside and outside of the party. Secondly, it has significantly reduced Labour’s ability to pragmatically criticise the government of Israel and improve the rights of Palestinians. It has done this by distracting from the actual actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians; and by weakening the credibility of Labour as and when it chooses to criticise them.

Some have argued that those wishing to oust Corbyn have put him in a difficult position by deliberately conflating criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Whether this is true or not, Labour cannot move forward unless they separate the two issues.

What can Labour do now?

To make any advances in effectively criticising Israel and upholding the rights of the Palestinians, Labour must separate the two conflated points. They can deliver a strong message against anti-Semitism by fully supporting the IHRA definitions as well as by combatting anti-Semitism in the party. Whilst doing this, they can separately give strong criticism of the Israeli state and advocate for the rights of the Palestinians. But confusing the two issues will get them nowhere.

Is Labour’s new code of conduct a gateway to antisemitism?

The ongoing row over the Labour Party’s new guidelines on antisemitism has understandably drawn a lot of attention in the last few weeks. It turned particularly heated when Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge directly called out Jeremy Corbyn as an “antisemite and a racist” in the House of Commons on 17th July, subsequently facing praise and criticism in equal measure. She since has been threatened with an investigation into “abusive conduct” and potentially disciplinary action by the Labour party, should she demonstrate similar behaviour in the future. It has also emerged that Peter Willsman, a member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) had been recorded at a meeting the same day, passing off reports of antisemitism as little more than “duff information without any evidence at all”, peddled by Jewish “Trump fanatics”. This all comes after Labour’s national executive committee ratified a decision to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in its own code of conduct, but to omit 4 of its 11 accepted examples of contemporary antisemitism. 

The IHRA definition has been accepted by 31 countries, and 130 councils across the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary; having been accepted as a working definition by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia in 2005, and by the UK government in 2016. Labour’s NEC however, deems it unnecessary to include the full text of the code in its own party rules; despite opposition by over 60 Rabbis and a vote on Monday 23rd July by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), to accept the IHRA definition, with all its working examples, in full. But what do these omissions actually mean? And what does Labour’s own code of conduct mean for a party already controversially embroiled in a trail of antisemitic scandals?

What’s missing in Labour’s code of conduct?

The Labour Party has accepted, unaltered, the full IHRA definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”

However, in its examples of conduct “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, the NEC has included only 7 of the original 11, intentionally leaving out the following 4:

1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

This first example does seem to clearly construct a perception of Jewish citizens collectively, of acting purely in the interests of their own group to the detriment of others, and so not only denies Jewish people a sense of agency and independence from the worldwide Jewish community, which is itself derogatory, but accuses them of working against other groups because of their own innate loyalty. This of course is dangerous because it might cause individuals to be treated with suspicion, or even cause them to be targeted as a member of a ‘duplicitous’ group of people. Labour instead chooses to describe this as “wrong” in Article 14, rather than explicitly antisemitic.

It is clear that the working examples included in the IHRA code are intended to prevent a slide towards treating Jews, as a collective, as second-class citizens in their own countries. This would suggest that any act which makes generalising claims about Jewish people as a whole, is damaging. And that is exactly why this first is important, especially when such a claim might foster distrust of a collective group.

2. “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).”

This second example is to deny Jewish people autonomy and a right to their own security. By claiming the State of Israel to be inherently racist in its existence, an individual questions the legitimacy of the state – this in theory might deny the right of the Jewish community to a state at all. If an individual wished to criticise the particular acts of particular people who helped established the state of Israel, they may freely do so. If one wishes to criticise the acts of the current, or a former, Israeli government, they may also do so. But to label an Israeli state as an inherently racist endeavour is to view its very existence as wrong, based on an illegitimacy at its core. This would then be to deny the right of Jewish people to their Israeli state.

It does seem somewhat moot in the sense that, regardless of the circumstances of Israel’s creation, it now is unquestionably a state and has been for 70 years. Thus, one cannot exactly question the legitimacy of the state itself today anyway. Nevertheless, denying its original legitimacy is akin to claiming that Jewish people do not have a right to self-determination, which was a key principle underlying the state’s creation in 1948.

In fact, rather than including the example in the list, the NEC code of conduct does actually make very clear in its Article 12, in reference to Article 1(2) of the UN Charter that “the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people”. It does not make reference to the “racist endeavour” example, however demonstrates clearly that to deny this right to Jewish people does constitute antisemitism. It does acknowledge also that “discussion of the circumstances of the foundation of Israeli state […] forms part of modern political discourse”. This therefore allows members to discuss freely those circumstances as they happened without challenging the current right of Jewish people to self-determination or the legitimacy of the current state of Israel.

3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The inclusion of the third example also makes sense, as to hold Israel to higher standards than any other democratic nation would be to single out Israel in particular. It would certainly not be wrong to expect the state of Israel to behave at the same high standards of international cooperation and/or human rights as other democratic states, or even to place pressure on them to do so, but to demand more from the state without justification would be itself discriminatory. Rather than include the example in its list of examples, Labour’s code labels such conduct as “wrong” in Article 14, as it would be to hold “Muslims or Muslim organisations to a higher standard than others”.

4. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

A comparison of contemporary Israeli policy with that of the Nazis seems particularly troubling. If a critic wishes to condemn the hypothetical acts of an Israel whose policies might involve targeting or subjugating minorities, or totalitarianism, the critic may make that claim without using Nazism as a comparison – there are other comparisons to be drawn from history which are not so loaded with a particular historic and emotional weight for the Jewish people. The full code does not prevent criticism. It only excludes that comparison. And that seems reasonable given the weight of that chapter of Jewish, and world, history and the possibility of this being used with antisemitic intent.

This has been particularly relevant since Jeremy Corbyn made a statement earlier this week, apologising for having appeared at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in 2010, at which the keynote speaker, Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, drew a comparison between Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Nazi Germany. Mr Corbyn acknowledged that he had shared a platform with people “whose views I completely reject”; and apologised for any “concerns and anxiety” that it might have caused. 

It might be argued, however, that to prevent a critic from using a selected example of policy or action deployed under Nazi totality as a comparison, may insulate contemporary Israel from the full extent of scrutiny that any other state should be subject to. It is not impossible to imagine a hypothetical scenario where a selected policy under the Israeli government might leave some feeling systematically subjugated, targeted or discriminated against. We don’t refrain from drawing similar comparisons with Germany in the 1930s and 40s when other states implement dangerous or prejudicial policy – in this sense, Israel alone might be seen as being immune from that comparison. On the other hand, such acts could very easily still be condemned with the very same force by a member of the Labour Party, without drawing a direct comparison between the two cases. This merely acknowledges the specific sensitivity of the historic metaphor and instead places the onus on critics of Israel to be more creative with their criticism.

What’s been added to Labour’s code?

Labour’s code of conduct does in fact elaborate on one of the other examples in IHRA guidelines, pertaining to the use of symbols or images associated with classic antisemitism, to include the use of derogatory terms and stereotypical and/or negative physical depictions of Jewish people. This is undoubtedly positive in providing specific and unmistakeable examples of antisemitic language and has sadly been overlooked in many criticisms of Labour’s new code.

Labour Party guidelines also include the phrase, “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, in the preamble to the examples. This is intended to imbue the examples with a greater degree of force in judging cases of antisemitism, than treating cases as “potential” acts of antisemitism. However, it does seem odd that the Labour Party would be willing to use that phrase, and then not include the 4 remaining examples. If the NEC had concerns about the ability of party members to exercise free speech in those cases whose context did not constitute antisemitism per se, the use of the word “likely”, rather than “certainly” may still accommodate for such specific cases to be judged in their own context. The original IHRA code of conduct provides for such cases when it describes antisemitic examples which “could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to [x]”. This suggests that there may be more examples of antisemitism not included in their own code, and that each should be judged in the context of their particular use, before the label of antisemitism is given. It would seem that the benefit of increased force that comes from using “likely” rather than “could”, is not great enough to outweigh the negative signal that the omissions send to many, including Jewish people, who feel the code has missed the mark.

What the code of conduct means for Labour

I don’t believe that a failure to accept the full definition automatically renders Labour or its leader antisemitic. However, an unwillingness to do so does signal to Jewish people that some of those acts deemed unacceptable as antisemitic by the widely accepted IHRA definition, might not be subject to the same scrutiny, or the same label, by the Labour party. This obviously must be a cause for great concern among those experiencing, or at risk from, such acts; and particularly those who have felt targeted by members of the Labour Party in the past and who are unable to gain recompense under the new rules. This is a critical juncture for the Party, at a time when over 200 cases of alleged antisemitic conduct are under investigation, involving roughly 75 members. This is a time when the Labour Party should be making very public moves to address these past offences and to take a firm line against abuse and systemic prejudice in party ranks. It is clearly a time when the party should be making gestures to ensure all its members feel welcome and to make clear its opposition to antisemitism of all kinds, taking into the consideration the views of the target group itself.

The importance of the examples is undeniable. They offer a clear standard by which one may be held to account. And when these cases are spelled out explicitly, as they are in the IHRA code, it creates a space within which any critic of the current State of Israel and its policies might freely exercise their right to free speech, condemning the policies of a modern state, as per that individual’s right to freely criticise any other state. At the very least, an acceptance of the full code removes many grey areas, and merely requires critics to temper their language to a lexicon acceptable and inoffensive to a certain group. This still allows the content of their criticism – provided it is not discriminatory or anti-Semitic inherently – to be conveyed clearly and forcefully.

It is perhaps true that Labour’s code goes further than the IHRA code in providing examples of unacceptable language and stereotypes targeted towards Jewish people. It may also be the case that the use of the word “likely” rather than “could” carries a greater degree of force. The concerns of Israel’s critics may also be valid, if they fear a state being able to avoid the full extent of scrutiny otherwise levied without question against other states. However, the Labour Party would not be denying contextual discretion in judging each case of supposed antisemitism, by including the other 4 working examples. These are all included in one way or other in its code already. Instead, it would lay out clearer guidelines by which certain acts may be judged; and signal a willingness to treat acts of that nature with the same level of scrutiny as other cases in the other examples. It would also be a very small concession to make, to ensure Jewish members of the party, or those subject to abuse and/or discrimination by members of the Party in the past, are made to feel safe and welcome. Most importantly for Labour, it would communicate a willingness to listen to the concerns of a minority, to acknowledge their right to stand up publicly against any abuse they feel they have been subjected to; and to entrench this at the core of their party code.

The Great March of Return: where are the terrorists – The NCF Gaza reports

Palestinians are protesting against restrictions on what goes in and out of Gaza. They are also supporting ‘right to return’ calls from Palestinian refugees. The moving of the USA’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exaserbated the situation. On Monday 14th May 40,000 Gazans joined the border protest. At least 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed thus far and thousands injured. Israel claims that protestors are terrorists attempting to break through the barrier. However several hundred metres separate protestors from IDF personnel. Most of the protestors were not violent and avoided getting too close to the ‘border’. Protestors included families with children. Gazans struggle to deal with increasing difficulties. Residents only have around four hours of electricity a day, there is limited access to clean water, limited health services and unemployment in the region is at around 64%. 

The response from the NCF in Gaza

The devastating reality of the situation has been reinforced by the Next Century Foundation’s office in the International Press Centre in Gaza. We were able to speak to them following the events of Monday 14th which they described as a “bloody, bloody day” and the worst so far. Award winning Gazan journalist Adel Zanoun told us that 3,288 people had been injured with a range of severity levels, including journalists. When asked about our journalist friends in Gaza, he said that they are all under threat regardless of whether they are national or international. The targeting of the press indicates that Israel’s claims that they are merely protecting themselves and responding to threats are not credible. Journalists are clearly marked with the word ‘PRESS’ across their chests. If Israel were combatting ‘terrorists’ then why have so many journalists, an estimated 175, been injured with several dead?

Regarding the use of force by Israel, Zanoun said that people were being injured by live fire against the Palestinian demonstrators that had steadily increased over the weeks; he said it was live ammunition that was injuring these people and not rubber bullets. Critical of Israel, he repeatedly tells me of how “bloody” it has been and the intense pressure that the Palestinians in Gaza are under. He makes reference to Hamas, stating that they have definitely played a role in the organisation of the demonstrations and that they may, following on from the intensity of Israel’s response, establish a counter response of their own. He also said that neither Ramadan nor the violence will deter demonstrations from continuing. However, he does not believe that the protests mask terrorism and emphasises that these were Palestinian people objecting to mistreatment.

Citing a widespread “collapse” of infrastructure, he emphasised the severity of the humanitarian situation, Public sector workers have been impacted with their salaries being cut; he says this has led to hospitals opening intermittently and no authorities in place to protect or serve the people in Gaza. There is no knowledge as to when full salaries will be reinstated. Zanoun repeatedly said that the Palestinian people are truly under such pressure that is only likely to worsen. With hospitals closing and virtually no ability to move in and out of the region, and no option for people to return if they do leave, the injured were not adequately cared for*. He says that there had been a breakdown of reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian authorities in Ramallah thus contributing to the absence of humanitarian or political progress.

The Palestinian people in Gaza are suffering, as they have been for many years. The firing of live ammunition against thousands of mostly innocent and unarmed protestors has furthered the suffering. When I asked Zanoun what he thinks about the future and the next steps, he said “there is no hope for Gaza now”. There is uncertainty, he says, that means that “no one knows what will happen” in one hour, one day or one month. What he does know is that the pressure continues to mount against the people and that political and humanitarian solutions are needed immediately to address the declining situation in Gaza. He said that people and politicians need to be working towards helping those in Gaza.

*N.B. Since speaking to Zanoun, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza strip throughout the month of Ramadan. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted that this would help “alleviate the burden of the brothers in the Gaza strip”

The background to the response

Since the end of March, 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s forces and thousands have been injured as they protest by the ‘border’. The response from the international community was weak to begin with, little attention was paid in the earlier days of these protests. However, since the 14th, Gaza is very much top of the international agenda with varied responses to the atrocities committed.

Israel’s representatives have denied acting wrongfully. They believe that Hamas was the driver of these protests and that the intention was to target Israel, target the borders and do so under the guise of a demonstration. Therefore, they have said their intention was to simply protect their borders and target ‘terrorists’ who were supposedly conducting a terrorist operation. It is undeniable that Hamas have been involved in the organising of these protests, something Zanoun said freely. However, to justify opening live fire on civilians because they are ‘terrorists’ is unacceptable. Not all of those who have died were terrorists, the members of the press who have been wounded, for example, were not terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath, the United States aligned themselves with Israel and did not, unlike their French and British counterparts, condemn the actions of the IDF. They believe their actions were justified. Nikki Haley spoke at the United Nations the following day where Israel was praised for showing “restraint” and blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinians and the violence, stating that it was what they wanted. The USA believed that ultimately, Israel acted in the best interests of its national security. Their stance is perhaps unsurprising given the choice to move the embassy on Nakba Day, a strong display of alliance with Israel and their lack of support for a future peace process.

Britain and France have expressed their disapproval of the actions of Israel and the wish to go forward in peace. Prime Minister Theresa May said that this level of violence is ‘destructive to peace efforts’ and that both sides should be acting with ‘restraint’. Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, stood up and passionately condemned the ‘massacre’ committed by Israel against protestors.  French President Emmanuel Macron was openly disapproving of the violence exercised by Israel’s forces and expressed empathy and compassion for the Palestinian people in Gaza.

As aforementioned, Egypt’s opening of the border crossing with the Gaza strip is emblematic of the attention and compassion that is now being shown to the Palestinians in Gaza by the international community. The United Nations has expressed its concern for the events that have happened since March in Gaza. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, has emphatically highlighted the plight of those in Gaza and their suffering. He also raises the point that there have been no casualties on Israel’s side thus demonstrating the asymmetry in any violent exchanges. Israel, according to al-Hussein, has acted without constraint and excessively. On Friday 18th May the UN Human Rights Council held a special session resolving to call an urgent independent enquiry into Monday’s events. The UK was amongst the 14 countries who abstained, citing the need for Israel to carry out their own independent investigation; the USA and Israel rejected the resolution. The latter once again cited the events in Gaza as a response to Hamas’ terrorist activities.

In Gaza itself, demonstrations continue unabated. The numbers are less and people are more cautious yet there is still drive there. It was quieter though as people across the region, including Israel, said their prayers for the people of Gaza and the ones who have been lost.

The international community has taken notice of Gaza and the suffering and unfairness that its people are subjected to. Israel may affirm the idea that their use of force was a way of responding to a perceived terrorist threat, but these arguments have little credibility. Of course there were agitators and violent protestors present, but children, impartial observers and thousands who posed no threat to the IDF have been injured, some killed. The treatment of Palestinians and their human rights has long been a cause for concern. With several nation states now openly criticising recent events and condemning the use of force against civilians, it leads to hope that there may be, as Adel Zanoun wished, humanitarian and political change for the people of Gaza.

The Debate – Israel’s Iran allegation

In this edition of The Debate, Iran’s Press TV conducted an interview with Michael Springmann, an author and former US diplomat, from Washington, and William Morris, the Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, from London, to discuss Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allegation that Iran is secretly working to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran and Israel: A Dangerous Game

The NCF questions Israel’s ability to pursue an all out long range war with Iran, without the USA in the lead. Indeed, to launch such a war Premier Netanyahu would need to bring on board his inner cabinet plus of course the generals. He is probably in no position to do this. Memories of the disastrous 2006 war with Lebanon which for a time depopulated all of Northern Israel, remain fresh. The NCF Secretary General has stated his belief that one reason President Trump decided to reneg on the nuclear deal with Iran was as a sop to Israel given the fact that he had no intention of ever initiating a US attack on Iran. However, in the following analysis, Qasim Abdul-Aziz argues that the danger is none the less real.

The conflict between Iran and Israel is reaching new heights. The looming threat of a large-scale war in the region is all the more real.

On Wednesday 9 May, Israel’s military reported that Iranian forces had fired more than twenty rockets from Syria into the occupied Golan Heights. Whilst it was claimed that none of the rockets hit their intended targets, Israel’s ‘red-line’ had been crossed. In a conflict that has largely been played out through proxies, this was the first time Iran had openly and brazenly attacked Israel.

Israel retaliated by striking dozens of targets they associated with Iran including weapons storage sites and Syrian Air Defence systems. Damascus braced itself as the sound of explosions rang through the night.

Arguably Iran instigated the conflict by firing their rockets at Israel’s military stationed in the occupied Golan Heights. However, the timeline of that recent escalation between the two states dates back to early April when Israel was the first to bomb Iranian controlled bases in Syria on at least two occasions.

Iran is attempting to gain a foothold in the Levant, expanding its influence across the region by supporting various parties in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In face of this expansionism, Israel has been particularly concerned about the Iranian presence in neighbouring Syria, fearing a long-term military plan to use Syria and other proxies such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah as a means to dominate the Middle East.

On April 30, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a televised presentation on Iran’s nuclear program, displaying allegedly secret documents obtained by Israeli intelligence. Whilst the current relevance of these documents is unclear, Prime Minister Netanyahu confidently claimed that they proved that Tehran was misleading the international community about its nuclear plans and is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons.

Little more than one week after Netanyahu’s speech, on Tuesday 8 May, the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. This could arguably be bad for Israel, given that the deal at least placed some constraints on Iran. But certainly Netanyahu perceived it as the best outcome for Israel, and he has pushed long and hard for the United States to pull the deal, citing Iran as the single greatest threat in the region. Hours after the United States announced their rejection of the nuclear deal, Iran launched their missile assault against Israel. This was of course no mere coincidence.

Both Iran and Israel, alongside other regional and international players, already share responsibility for destabilising the region. Whilst Israel’s flagrant aggressions are well-documented against the Palestinians, Iran too, has a stained record. As the Syrian civil war was seeming to wind down after seven long and arduous years, these recent provocations could be the beginning of a new and more open conflict in the Middle East. Let us hope that wise heads prevail.

Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.

Conclusions

Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

Is it time for the UK to recognise the state of Palestine?

Palestinian prospects for self-determination continue to dwindle. International calls for a two-state solution are becoming increasingly infrequent. 2017 and 2018 have been excellent years for Israel. US President Donald Trump has decided to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a city which (in the absence of a peace settlement) cannot be recognised as the capital of Israel without the direct violation of international law. And Israel’s settlement program continues to take more and more land from the Palestinians, also in direct violation of international law. Meanwhile, the recent protests in Gaza have been met with the killing of over forty Palestinian demonstrators, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The international community remains apathetic with regard to the situation and the British response to the current crisis in Gaza has been tepid at best.

However, there is still a glimmer of hope for Palestinian self-determination. Indeed as long as there are Palestinians in Palestine, showing their willingness to continue to fight for their future, hope remains. What is required to turn this hope into something more tangible is a statement of intent from the British Government: a willingness to turn a vague ‘position’ of backing for a two-state solution into a more tangible policy. Britain should recognise the State of Palestine.

Britain remains influential, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Britain’s recognition of Palestine would have a greater effect on the world stage than when countries like Sweden made the same declaration a few years ago. Mainstream European politics has become more pro-Palestine in recent decades. Furthermore, the former policy of ‘follow the US’ lead’ can no longer as easily continue with the unpredictable and diplomatically brash Trump in power. If powerful countries can show they are willing to step out from under the US’ shadow, it will encourage a disillusioned Palestine and, perhaps, caution an Israel that is becoming bolder and bolder.

Beyond the moral argument, recognition might also create tangible political benefits for the UK. The UK’s willingness to ignore Israel’s human rights abuses weakens Britain’s ability to apply international pressure elsewhere. The UK criticising Iran’s oppression of freedom of belief whilst providing tacit support to Israel’s human rights violations in regard to Palestinians’ freedom to demonstrate is viewed as hypocritical by some. Relations between the UK and countries in the region would improve if Britain could point to tangible efforts to improve the lives of Palestinians. At the very least, it would remove an excuse that is often put forward by the West’s opponents, such as Iran, to justify their behaviour. At a more micro level, the UK’s stance on the Israel-Palestine situation is certainly a factor that leads young, disillusioned men to be swept up by Islamic fundamentalism. Terror groups feed off of a portrayal of Muslims and the West as incompatible, often citing our hypocrisy regarding Israel as evidence.

How far we are from such a declaration of the recognition of Palestine is difficult to say. Only one of the major parties within the UK does not plan to recognise Palestine as a nation state. Unfortunately, that party is the incumbent Conservatives. However, quite possibly there are enough conservative MPs in favour of recognition that, if put to a parliamentary vote, Britain would indeed recognise Palestine.

Evidently, such a bill will not be drawn up by Theresa May’s current cabinet. Israel remains a powerful ally with tremendous influence on Britain’s government.

In the government’s eyes, the potential benefits of upsetting the status-quo do not yet outweigh the potential costs. However, Britain’s claim to be a supporter of Human Rights becomes shallow whilst it continues to give de facto support to the current actions of Israel.

The Balfour Declaration: 100 Years On

It is exactly 100 years to the day since the signing of the Balfour Declaration, an event that has had profound consequences and which continues to shape the Middle East and the rest of the world today. The Declaration, a product of British design, made two promises. First, it promised a homeland for the Jews, a people facing widespread persecution  and who would go on to face persecution on an abhorrent scale. Second, it promised that the civil and religious rights of those non-Jewish communities already occupying the land would not be prejudiced. Decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians underpins this failure to fulfill that second promise.

Britain must accept responsibility for its role in this, but not shy away from the important role it can play in the future. The U.K. should begin by recognising the state of Palestine as an important first step, and on that basis, lead new efforts at peace and reconciliation which acknowledge the fundamental rights of Palestinians and also the right of Israel to its security. It is no good making further promises. It is time for a new approach.

Balfour Declaration Centenary

This year marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a statement issued by the British government toward the end of the First World War. The Balfour Declaration promised to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, whilst also respecting the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian people. No word, however, was given on the political rights of Palestinian Arabs. Furthermore, the word ‘national home’, as opposed to ‘state’, was deliberately ambiguous, with no precedent in international law. These ambiguities begat confusion and have led to the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the most insoluble conflicts of the last century.

For the Jewish people, the Balfour Declaration was a watershed moment that paved the way for the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, whose value was highlighted after the tumult of the Holocaust. After mass genocide at the hands of Nazi Germany, Jews had a place to go to, a place to call home after such great geographic and emotional dislocation. And as we enter the centenary year, the achievements of the Declaration have rightly been extolled in certain corners, with Theresa May stating that Britain will mark its anniversary with ‘pride’. However, we should not forget, nor take satisfaction from Britain’s inability to fulfil only one half of the bargain. Five-a-half million Palestinians have been exiled from their own homeland as a result of a problem placed on their own front door by the British government, and a bitter struggle has ensued.

With such a complex and sensitive issue, the perspective of both sides must be acknowledged and engaged with. There is a danger that the Arab world, most crucially Palestinian Arabs, will see the way that Brits, Christians, Jews and other members of the international community celebrate the centenary without any professed sense of regret. We must show them that we condemn the areas in which the Balfour Declaration has failed, and empathise with the concomitant suffering of Palestinian Arabs.

The centenary year of the Balfour Declaration represents a fitting time for reflection, both on its achievements and its failures. And on Tuesday 31 October, the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster will host an exciting, important event. ‘Britain’s Broken Promise: Time For A New Approach’ will seek to lead Britons to a more nuanced perspective on this historic declaration.

Buy Tickets for the Balfour event here

 

Temple Mount crisis: Why is there no peace process?

dome of the rock

On Sunday night, Israeli police officers arrested 33 people in a series of raids on suspicion of involvement in the violent clashes resulting from the Temple Mount crisis.

In response to the shooting of two Druze police officers serving in Israel’s Border Police, a paramilitary force, on July 14th, Israel’s government installed metal detectors and cameras at the entrance to the site which prompted violent clashes between Muslim worshipers and Israel’s police forces over the past two weeks. Three died as a result.

These arrests highlight the lack of a successful resolution of the spat, despite Israel’s government removing the metal detectors from the site. It was hoped this could have signalled an end to the crisis. With more attention having been given to Syria and Iraq in recent times, this crisis has reminded us of the importance of fostering a peace process in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

It should not require such violence to bring the Israel-Palestine question to the attention of the international community. Steps should be taken to ensure that Jews and Muslims can coexist peacefully. This can only be achieved through dialogue and  negotiation. Acts of violence, police raids and rioting merely encourage retaliation.

Water-Apartheid in the Palestinian Territories

water

The right to safe drinking water is recognised by the United Nations as a fundamental human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and an adequate standard of living”. The UN calls upon all states to ensure that every person, “without discrimination”, has access to “sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use”.

Yet this is a distant reality for millions of Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip; instead they live with water that is contaminated, overpriced and chronically short in supply.

In the Gaza Strip, at least 95% of groundwater extracted from the Coastal Aquifer is so heavily contaminated it is “unfit for human consumption” according to UNICEF. After decades of over-exploitation by Palestinian and Israeli authorities, Gaza’s only aquifer has become severely depleted and susceptible to seawater and sewage contamination. Water shortages and widespread contamination are compounded by lasting conflict between Israel and Gaza’s de facto Hamas administration: in 2014 this conflict saw crucial water infrastructure targeted and destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Subsequently, Israel’s long-standing blockade on Gaza continues to restrict the entry of specialist materials needed to rebuild and repair this damaged infrastructure.

DESALINATION vs electricity

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the right of Palestinians to safe water is systematically undermined through an unequal water-sharing agreement with Israel: the 1995 Oslo II Accord. This agreement grants Israel exclusive control of roughly four times the Palestinian allocation of ‘shared’ water resources, despite Israelis and Israeli settlers comprising a vastly smaller proportion of the West Bank’s population. The disparity in water consumption is shocking: a 2013 report by local NGO Al-Haq found that 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank collectively consumed over six times as much water as 2.6 million Palestinians.

Moreover, a discriminatory permit regime enables Israel to prevent Palestinians from building and maintaining water infrastructure in the West Bank. Where building work has taken place without Israeli approval, authorities have demolished vital structures including basic latrines, water tanks and piping networks serving Palestinian communities.

Faced with chronic water shortages and widespread contamination, many Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank spend between 20-30% of their income purchasing overpriced water from Israeli water company Mekorot or other unregulated private vendors.

This is a hugely unjust situation.