First published by the Middle East Monitor on 21/9/2019
John Bercow, the speaker of the UK’s House of Commons, will be standing down soon. He has been an animated figure, whose gesticulations and dressing downs of MPs have left a mark with viewers all over the world. At the height of the continuing Brexit saga, my 7-year-old son suddenly shouted “order, order!” with the kind of emphasis Bercow employs.
On a more serious note however, Bercow was also firm in ensuring that any MP speaking, from the newest to the most senior, was not drowned out by ill-disciplined MPs. His firm reassuring line was “the right honourable gentleman will be heard.” The voice of every single MP was always heard.
I started with this opening to the article, because that is what came to mind when it became clear that Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), who was due to speak at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign fringe meeting on Sunday, would not receive his visa in time. The Labour Party Conference fringe will also be addressed by Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott MP, Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East Chair Lisa Nandy MP and trade union UNITE General Secretary Len McKluskey.
Barghouti’s voice, a principled and important mouthpiece for Palestinians, would be silenced by the UK’s Home Office. While a Home Office spokesperson put the reason for the delay down to Barghouti’s case being a “complex case,” he stated that Barghouti’s application remains within the 15 working day turnaround and that he “will receive a decision shortly.”
It is worth reminding readers that the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had to resign from her post as International Development Secretary in 2017, over breaches of ministerial conduct when she held meetings with Israeli politicians while on holiday. These meetings were neither authorised, nor coordinated, with the government or the embassy in Tel Aviv. Patel had even considered plans to look into giving tax-payers’ money to the Israeli military to treat wounded Syrian refugees in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region – a request that was turned down as “inappropriate” by officials. Patel also visited an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights, which the UK considers illegally occupied Syrian territory. Some of her meetings were attended by Honorary President of Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak, who is known for this blind support of Israel, and for displaying such positions regularly in the House of Lords.
Patel is not the first home secretary to preside over a Home Office that has a record of making it difficult for Palestinians, both from Israel and the Occupied Territories, to come to the UK and to speak freely about the conflict. Former Prime Minister Theresa May ordered the detention of Sheikh Raed Salah, an Israeli citizen and well-known defender of Al-Aqsa mosque and severe critic of the Israeli Government, after his legal arrival in the UK in 2011. He was due to speak at a number of meetings, including in Parliament. This was despite the fact that Israeli citizens travel to the UK without the need for a visa, including illegal settlers and some who may have been involved in the oppression of the occupied Palestinian people. Salah eventually won his appealagainst his deportation from the UK.
Barghouti, who lives in the West Bank and is married to a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was instrumental in setting up the BDS movement. Both he, and the movement, have been accused of anti-Semitism. Barghouti will be able to defend himself when he speaks via Skype at the fringe meeting in Brighton. The movement itself, which has at its core freedom, justice and equality, has three demands. All three of its demands are legal and moral. They are: to bring an end to the occupation, for equality for all citizens of Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Israel and its supporters have been working overtime to smear the movement, claiming it only targets Jews and “the world’s only Jewish state.” However, Israel’s supporters cannot point to Israel fulfilling any of the movement’s legitimate and peaceful demands without external pressure. They claim that the movement and its leaders want to see the “destruction of Israel” and that they do not support a two-state solution. The same people have been silent while Israel continued to gobble up illegally occupied Palestinian lands, to move settlers illegally into the settlements – a war crime under international law – and to annex East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. They have been silent on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s promise to annex the illegally occupied Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea, if elected, a policy he shares with most political parties in Israel.
Supporters of Israel simply want to silence Palestinian voices, and those of their supporters, with the smear of anti-Semitism as they increasingly point to the new definition of anti-Semitism – the so called International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition – to attack and smear activists and to intimidate and bully operators of possible venues into not take bookings for events at which Palestine will be discussed. The recent decision by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, to ban a reception for the Big Ride for Palestine from one of its parks, is a case in point.
The intimidation and bullying, and the hiding behind procedure, will not silence the Palestinians or their supporters. We will continue to bring the plight of the Palestinians and the shameful actions of the Israeli state to the widest possible audience, both as organisations such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and as individuals campaigning for justice for the Palestinians and accountability for Israel.
I would have liked to have given Barghouti a hug on Sunday, but the Home Office has denied me that opportunity. However, in the words of Bercow, “the honourable gentleman will be heard.” Barghouti will address the meeting via Skype, and the voice of the Palestinians will be heard both at the fringe meeting and beyond, until Palestine is free. The events that led to Israel’s creation and our dispossession, as well as its continuing apartheid policies, will be heard. That is a promise to Israel and its apologists.