The PNC meeting was ‘much ado about nothing’

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/5/2018

 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd L) makes a speech during the 23rd session of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah, West Bank on 30 April 2018 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
After a 22-year lull, the highest Palestinian legislative authority of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Council (PNC), finally met in Ramallah for its 23rd session. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faced severe criticism for holding the meeting in Ramallah, which remains under occupation, thus excluding many members and figures who would not be allowed into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) by Israel, or who faced arrest and even assassination if they attempted to enter.
The PNC consists of 765 members, including 198 independents, 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), 49 representing Fatah, 98 representing other factions and a whole multitude of members representing different Palestinian organisations.

 

The meeting was held in the smart Ahmad Shukeiri Hall in Ramallah, named after the first chairman of the PLO; it was filled to the rafters when Abbas was in attendance over four long days. The front row, reserved for the leadership, looked as familiar as ever; it lacked any significant representation of women, non-Fatah faction representatives or young blood. The 23rd session of the PNC was named the “Jerusalem and protecting legitimacy round” in reference to the dangers Jerusalem faces and the need to renew the legitimacy of a number of the PLO institutions.

The meeting was boycotted by three major Palestinian factions — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — and a number of independent figures, including well-known members like Dr Salman Abu Sitta, Abdel Bari Atwan and Dr Anis Kassem.

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor's 'Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation' conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor’s ‘Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation’ conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

The meeting kicked off on 30 April with chaotic scenes as attendance was established by every name of the hundreds of existing members being read out and recorded as present or absent; various lists of replacements were placed in front of the ageing Chairman of the PNC, Saleem Al-Zanoun, adding to the confusion. The session concluded with a proclamation that the meeting was quorate, made to rapturous applause.

What followed was another rambling speech by Abbas lasting for 1 hour 48 minutes. Listening to it, I struggled to identify anything significant to take away with me, which was astonishing given the gravity of the situation the Palestinians face. Nor was there anything to distinguish it from his last speech to another PLO institution, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) in January. While supposed to be reading his speech, Abbas went off script regularly, which is not a good idea when every word is scrutinised by friend and foe alike, especially when it comes to his attempts to present his version of history to an international audience. His explanation of the reason for the Holocaust drew almost universal condemnation, including some from the Israeli Prime Minister, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and the editorial board of the New York Times. While a more accurate translation of what he said gives context to his remarks, he should really have learnt by now that venturing into this area provides an open goal for accusations of anti-Semitism and those want to quote him out of context.

Attendees listened to speech after speech from leaders, members and guests representing various organisations and over 30 friendly states. The general message was one of support for the Palestinian cause, rejection of Trump’s US Embassy move and an emphasis on the importance of holding the PNC meeting. However, it was the many conversations, sometimes heated, taking place behind the scenes about possible names for membership of the PNC, PLO Executive Committee and the PCC that drove the real business of the meeting.

The closing session took place in the late hours of day four, concluding with a shorter speech by Abbas and the emerging decisions of the PNC. Abbas was “re-elected” by proclamation as President of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The PNC Chairman reminded the meeting how decisions are reached in the PNC, by standing up and applauding. There is no ballot. This drew heavy criticism from Nabil Amer, a former PLO Ambassador to Egypt, who had wanted to stand for the Executive Committee. He was initially told not to speak by Abbas but was eventually allowed to say a few words by the PNC Chairman. He simply reiterated his intention to struggle for decisions to be taken through a ballot and called on the PNC to hold Legislative Council and Presidential elections without delay.

Amer’s remarks were only heard after the PNC agreed to Abbas’s list of members of the Executive Committee, which he claimed had been agreed with “nationalistic factions”. Fifteen names were presented, including seven former members and eight new people. Those familiar to followers of Palestinian politics were Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi. Abbas explained that the Committee had kept three seats vacant to allow the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which boycotted the meeting, to join the PNC. In the case of Hamas, he conditioned this on the movement agreeing to abide by existing agreements. “We don’t want to see them out of our national unity and we don’t like exclusion,” he claimed.

The PNC was also asked to approve membership of the smaller PCC, which was to take on the terms of reference of the PNC due to the difficulties it faces in meeting annually, as it should. Presenting the names, the newly-installed Executive Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad, known for his role in negotiating reconciliation with Hamas, stressed the great efforts made to ensure the widest possible geographic and factional representation on the PCC.

Earlier, 35 PNC members urged Abbas to end the sanctions he had imposed on the Gaza Strip since May 2017 to force Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, to hand over power to the Palestinian Authority. Abbas skated around the subject but confirmed that the April salaries for those on the PA payroll in Gaza would be paid immediately and that the lack of payment had been due to a “technical hitch” and was not intended to punish the besieged workers.

In his closing remarks, Abbas took a swipe at those who boycotted the meeting held under occupation. “When we said [that we will] meet in this beautiful Ahmad Shukeiri Hall we are in our country, in our homeland not under the pikes of the occupier,” he insisted. “Yes, there is an occupation, but we can say what we want here. I am not prepared to go and seek a place to meet in an Arab country or any other when I can meet on my land.”

The closing statement of the 23rd PNC meeting is long but uninspiring. It reiterates the decisions of the PCC held in January, which remain un-actioned, including suspending recognition of Israel until it recognises Palestine and the end of security cooperation with the occupying power.

Much will now be written about the PNC meeting, its legitimacy, operation and decisions. Those who questioned its legitimacy will not change their stance, but what can they do to oppose them? The significant Palestinian factions which boycotted the gathering are unlikely to suddenly accept the invitation to re-join a body that they consider illegitimate. Healing the pain of the division has been taken off the table. Fatah and the small number of individuals around the Palestinian President will continue to operate without wide consultation and take crucial decisions on issues facing the Palestinian people. There is no accountability for the actions of the Palestinian leadership including, the Palestinian National Authority. Has it delivered any meaningful improvement to the lives of Palestinians or moved them closer to achieving their legitimate rights? Can refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria see an end to their exile? Are the Palestinians in the diaspora represented in the PLO’s institutions in the proportion that they should be, or are they simply a number to call upon when the scale of the suffering of the Palestinians since the Nakba needs to be highlighted? Sadly, the reality is that there is no new emerging strategy to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians or to oppose the Trump juggernaut as it implements Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s diktats on “peace” through what is touted as the “deal of the century”.

The 23rd meeting of the PNC has come and gone and will in my view be remembered as one of the least significant events in Palestinian history; it was definitely “much ado about nothing”. However, Abbas pleased the meeting by announcing that Palestinian child prisoner Ahed Tamimi, convicted for slapping an Israeli soldier, will be made an honorary member of the Council. We might have to wait a little longer, but perhaps a President Ahed Tamimi or a member of her generation will one day take up the baton and lead the Palestinians to justice, freedom and equality.

 

Labour, Conservatives and the quest for a Palestinian state

First published by the Middle East Eye on 5/10/2017

As the 2017 conference season in the UK comes to a close, Palestinians can only hope that a future Labour government will recognise their pursuit of justice and freedom

The annual conference season for the political parties in the UK has been in full swing. The Labour pParty held what has been widely reported as a highly successful conference last week.

In contrast to Labour’s conference, the Conservative conference has been widely reported aslacklustre. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was the star in Brighton, where the conference was held, while Prime Minister, Theresa May, was left looking over her shoulder at possible rivals for her job.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen as her main rival, made a typically rousing speech in which he talked up Britain’s standing in the world and how it will succeed in going global post-Brexit. Though his subsequent comments on Libya once again brought calls for him to be dismissed.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not figure in his remarks.

UK foreign policy

It was left to the government’s international development decretary, Priti Patel, to criticise the Labour leader for failing to condemn the “terror his friends in Hamas have unleashed upon the Israeli people and not once did he condemn or confront his supporters who have launched a wave of anti-Semitism, bullying and abuse against anyone who does not subscribe to their extremist views”.

It sounded as if she was only addressing pro-Israel supporters in the conference hall rather than offering a way forward. May also accused Corbyn of “allowing anti-Semitism and misogyny run free in his party”. Again no mention of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel.

In his keynote speech, Corbyn, a long-standing campaigner for human rights, said: “We must put our values at the heart of our foreign policy. Democracy and human rights are not an optional extra to be deployed selectively.” And while he criticised Saudi Arabia and Myanmar for human rights abuses he added that: “We should stand firm for peaceful solutions to international crises.”

While such words are popular with his audience, the biggest cheer on foreign policy issues, however, came when he broke a two-year silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by appealing to the conference “to give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people. The 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”

Although this appeal cheered the Palestinians and their sympathisers, it did not, however, go down well with the ardent supporters of Israel within the party. However, both sides must have noted that he omitted from his speech an important promise made in the now famous Labour manifesto. It committed a Labour government “to immediately recognise the state of Palestine”.

Recognising Palestine as a state is a tangible action that a Labour government can take to demonstrate its commitment to support the Palestinians and their rights, a move which the Conservatives refuse to take. Recognising Palestine also would simply be implementing a decision taken by the British Parliament in 2014 following the Israeli war on Gaza.

The Labour leader’s two-year silence on the Palestinian issue can reasonably be attributed to the vicious attack he has faced since his election at the hands of the pro-Israel lobby both within and outside the party.

The prospect, though judged unrealistic at the time of his election as leader in 2015, of a committed supporter of Palestine and equally outspoken critic of Israeli policies entering 10 Downing Street as British prime minister sent the pro-Israel lobby into panic mode.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds up a cough sweet after suffering a coughing fit whilst addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 4 October (Reuters)

The definition of antisemitism

Accusations of major anti-Semitism in the party were made. In response, Corbyn immediately commissioned an inquiry into anti-Semitism charges appointing respected lawyer and human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti to lead it. The inquiry concluded: “The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.”

The inquiry and subsequent report were not adequate as far as the pro-Israel lobby was concerned. The lobby’s response was to conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.

new definition of anti-Semitism, that went beyond the widely understood accusation of “hatred of Jews because they are Jews” was needed to shield Israel from criticism. This came in the form of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Issues related to Israel figure prominently in the examples given by the IHRA to explain the definition, thus making it possible to accuse critics of Israeli policies of anti-Semitism.

This definition was adopted by the government, the Labour Party and a number of local authorities. It is now being used regularly to throw accusations of anti-Semitism around despite a legal opinionwhich described it as “unclear and confusing and should be used with caution”.

The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) are two organisations that work within the Labour party to influence its policy in support of Israel. LFI members were furious that the Labour leader did not address their fringe.

This year the JLM proposed a rule change that will tighten explicitly the party’s stance towards members who are anti-Semitic or use other forms of hate speech, including racism, Islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. The rule change was adopted, with the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle reporting: “The changes mean Labour members could face expulsion and other punishments for Jew-hate.”

However, the rule change means the IHRA definition could be used to accuse individuals criticising Israel of anti-Semitism and they could then be suspended or expelled. The pro-Israel lobby becomes the gatekeeper on what is acceptable criticism and what crosses their lines.

However, the rule change did not go unchallenged.

The emergence of a new group, the Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), representing Jewish socialists who support Palestinian rights, provided some pushback against the pro-Israel lobby in the party.

Two of its members spoke against the rule change but more significantly spoke for parts of British Jewry that the JLM cannot claim to represent. The importance of the emergence of JVL cannot be overemphasised. In future, the Labour Party cannot develop policy that might impact on British Jews or policy on Israel and only speak to the JLM. This should bring a fairer representation of Jewish views than in the past.

As the 2017 conference season ends, the Conservatives continue with business as usual in supporting Israel and paying lip service to the suffering of the Palestinians, while there is hope that a Labour government would act to support the Palestinians in their quest for justice and freedom. For Palestinians that cannot come quickly enough.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges his audience prior to giving his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 27, 2017 (Reuters)

Israel is sleepwalking towards tyranny not practising democracy

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 28/7/2017

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Let me start by acknowledging that democracy is in short supply in the Middle East. However, only one state claims to be a democratic state. In fact, Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with the “most moral army in the world”.

Increasingly, extremist Israeli governments with no respect for international law, international humanitarian law or international norms have been using the pretence of democracy to entrench Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and to place the state’s Jewish identity above democracy. The Nation State Bill, making its way through the Knesset, seeks to do just that, despite claims a future draft would tone this down.

All is not well with democracy in Israel. Every so often former, senior Israeli politicians or retired security personnel warn that Israel is edging towards apartheid and even more recently towards tyranny.

Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have warned that Israel’s policies are leading towards naked apartheid; Barak said as recently as last month that Israel was on a “slippery slope towards apartheid”.

Former Israeli officials were blind to the impact of their policies while in office. After all, the settlement project saw a major expansion during Barak’s reign. How is it that he could not see the devastating effect of this on the prospects for peace? It is also true that when it comes to settlements, current Prime Minister Netanyahu needs no excuse to expand the enterprise but still uses this as punishment for perceived Palestinian indiscretions such as joining world bodies or conventions.

To many observers the label of apartheid is already justified. Anyone who has visited the occupied Palestinian town of Hebron can testify that they saw apartheid, felt it and smelt it.

In April former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon warned that the country’s political system had sunk in the process of “incremental tyranny”. They were speaking ahead of a public meeting at a Jerusalem gallery that was threatened with closure after hosting a meeting organised by the military whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence, one of the main targets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ayalon explained that “incremental tyranny [is a process] which means you live in a democracy and suddenly you understand it is not a democracy anymore,” adding that “this is what we are seeing in Israel. The tragedy of this process is that you only know it when it is too late”.

Attacks on human rights organisations within Israel are nothing new. Breaking the Silence,B’TselemAl-Haq, Peace Now and Yesh Din have all been demonised and individuals issued with death threats. MK David Bitan called for the citizenship of B’Tselem Director Hagai El-Ad to be revoked simply because he criticised Israel’s occupation to the United Nations Security Council.

In 2017 Israel passed a law compelling NGOs to reveal their foreign funding which would allow the government to lobby those states that fund these critical NGOs. This scrutiny does not to extend to those that support and fund illegal settlements.

Israel’s targeting of the media is constant and is hardly a sign of democracy. It regularly raids offices of Palestinian radio and TV stations and confiscates equipment. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed Israel 91st out of 180 countries, way behind many Western-style democracies that it claims to emulate including Germany (16), France (39), UK (40) and the US (43). Palestine was ranked 135th.

During assaults on Gaza, Israel deliberately attacked buildings housing media channels, which caused damage and casualties. Israel’s most recent attack on the media came during the recent coverage of protests and Israeli army violence at Al-Aqsa. The Israeli Prime Minister threatened to close Al Jazeera’s offices accusing its journalists of “inciting violence,” a claim the Qatari owned network strongly rejects.

In recent months Israel has escalated its war on freedom of speech both at home and abroad, particularly in relation to proponents of the BDS movement. While it generally claims the movement is ineffective, it has appointed Gilad Erdan as minister for strategic affairs to combat individuals and organisations that pursue this tactic for pressuring Israel.

At the 2016 Yediot Achronot conference which attacked BDS, Israel’s transport minister Yisrael Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Thankfully, Barghouti is still alive but he was banned from travelling abroad for a period of time and was recently arrested on allegations of tax evasion, which he denied.

Israel has also turned its attention to critics abroad. In March 2017 the Knesset passed a law that would empower the immigration authorities to deny proponents of the BDS movement abroad entry to Israel. Commenting on the new law Erdan said “the rules of the game have changed,” and that organisations seeking to harm Israel’s “national security” through boycotts would be denied entry to the country.

A few days after the law was passed Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Hugh Lanning, was denied entry to Israel. A few days later I was travelling with my wife and son to visit family in East Jerusalem when I was also denied entry. This was particularly ironic given it is the year Britain plans to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

The first question I was asked during my interrogation was whether I had heard of the new BDS law. I believed that I was denied entry because of my role in PSC where I am a member of the executive committee, and our promotion of BDS. I did wonder at the time whether the law would be applied equally to Jews holding foreign passports and residing abroad who supported BDS or a more limited boycott of the illegal settlements.

When campaign director for Code Pink, Ariel Gold, made it into Israel recently I noted that a Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights and of BDS had been allowed in. However, she was ‘outed’ in the press and accused of “tricking” her way into the country, which she denied. She is now worried about being denied entry in the future.

At least Gold made it to Tel Aviv. On the 23 July Jewish Rabbi Alissa Wise and two other faith leaders were not allowed to board a flight to Tel Aviv by Lufthansa on the orders of Israel. Wise is from Jewish Voice for Peace. It’s important to remember that Israel has a Law of Return for Jews but denies the right of return to Palestinians.

Israel’s borders extend as far as it wants them to and in Alissa’s case they extended all the way to Washington and will be coming to an airport near you if critics of Israel decide to visit. Israel has developed criterion for entry denial and will demand that airlines deny boarding to individuals in their country of departure.

The implications for critics of Israel and organisations that promote BDS are clearly significant in term of accessing the country to show solidarity with Palestinians. However, they are unlikely to be perturbed about campaigning for the rights of Palestinians and promoting BDS, unless Israel’s lobby in key countries succeeds in wrongly criminalising BDS as the US is currently attempting to do.

In reaction to recent events around Al-Aqsa, Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi – a key Netanyahu ally – threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba”. The reference here is to the Arabic term for catastrophe or the mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and then 1967. How democratic is that?

It seems to me that Israel has found it difficult to reconcile its role of delivering the Zionist project and acting as a democracy. It has to deal with non-Jews that it wishes had all been ethnically cleansed in 1948. Their sheer existence is a demographic threat and as we saw recently in Jerusalem, if they had all gone the ‘third Temple’ would have been built by now in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque in a state only for Jews.

Israel claims to be Jewish and democratic but the reality is that it is a settler, colonialist and apartheid state with a stockpile of nuclear weapons to boot.  It seems that if democracy does not deliver its colonialist aims then – as some of its own senior citizens fear – it will head towards tyranny. I acknowledge that Israel is not there yet but the direction of travel worries me as a Palestinian and should worry Israelis who want to make peace with their neighbours.

Those that support Israel in the West should also worry. Will they heed the fears of former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, or will they only know it when it is too late.

Israel’s double standards about boycotts do not advance peace

First published by the Arab Weekly on 16/7/2017

It is quite hypocritical for Israel to reject BDS while boycotting others for taking legal and moral positions in support of the Palestinians.


 Peaceful expression. An Egyptian man shouts anti-Israeli slogans in front of banners with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logo at the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo. (AP)

The movement to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Arab land, to treat all its citizens equally regardless of race, religion or creed and to imple­ment UN Resolution 194 allowing the Palestinian refugees to return home is 12 years old.

It was called by more than 150 Palestinian civil society organisa­tions to achieve these demands using a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel.

The movement, its website states, “works to end interna­tional support for Israel’s oppres­sion of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with interna­tional law.” Its call for freedom, justice and equality is moral and legal. The movement drew on the lessons learnt from the effort to boycott South Africa until it dismantled its apartheid regime.

Since its launch in 2005, the BDS movement has raised awareness about the plight of the Palestinians and placed pressure on companies and individuals to review their relationship with Israel as an occupying power and to question their role either in its continuation or smoothing its image.

The BDS movement can point to major successes. European companies Veolia, Orange and CRH have withdrawn from Israel.

Significant artists, including Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Lauryn Hill, Faithless, Marianah, U2, Bjork, Zakir Hussain, Jean- Luc Godard, Snoop Dogg, Cat Power and Vanessa Paradis, cancelled performances in Israel or declined to perform there.

Institutional investors includ­ing the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church, the Dutch pension fund manager PGGM and the Norwe­gian, Luxembourg and New Zealand governments have divested from companies over their role in Israeli violations of international law.

Initially, Israel dismissed BDS as a failure and labelled its effects as insignificant but that approach recently changed. It appointed a minister and ministry to combat those effects and supported the effort to the tune of $50 million. It labelled the movement an anti-Semitic movement and its supporters in the West, particu­larly in the United States, have sought to legislate against companies or organisations that participated in the campaign. Israel recently passed a law that bans supporters of the BDS movement from entering the country, even if their effort is directed at the illegal settle­ments.

Israel’s vigorous opposition to boycotts as a means of achieving political change could be under­stood if it was consistent in this view when it came to exerting political pressure on others. That is not the case, however. Israel regularly imposes sanctions by withholding funds due to the Palestinian Authority (PA) from taxes Israel collects on the PA’s behalf to signal disapproval of actions such as joining UN agencies, including UNESCO.

The minister responsible for combating the BDS movement, Gilad Erdan, boycotted a visiting German delegation because its members refused to meet him in occupied East Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netan­yahu boycotted the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel for meeting with Israeli NGOs he disapproves of. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom has been boycotted for her views on Israeli policies.

It is quite hypocritical for Israel to reject BDS as a peaceful means of exerting pressure on it to end its illegal policies while boycott­ing others for taking legal and moral positions in support of the Palestinians and the pursuit of peace. As the saying goes: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

If Israel put as much energy and effort into meeting the moral and legal demands of the BDS move­ment as it does opposing it, peace would be much closer than it is now.

Silencing critics will only reinforce image of Israel as a bully

First published by the Arab Weekly on 7/5/2017

In recent years Israel has been developing approaches to combat the criticism it receives, both for the lack of progress towards peace with the Palestinians and increasingly for policies it develops and implements.

This can be traced to a signifi­cant 2010 report, produced by the Reut Institute, that claimed: “Is­rael has been subjected to increas­ingly harsh criticism around the world, resulting in an erosion of its international image and exact­ing a tangible strategic price.”

It identified what it calls “the Delegitimisation Network” and claimed that it “tarnishes Israel’s reputation, constrains its military capabilities and advances the One- State Solution.”

The Reut report diagnosed Israel’s predicament as facing “a systemic, systematic and in­creasingly effective assault on its political and economic model.” It suggested that “faced with a po­tentially existential threat, Israel must treat it as such by focusing its intelligence agencies on this challenge; allocating appropriate resources; developing new knowl­edge, designing a strategy, execut­ing it; and debriefing itself.”

The report suggested that, to combat the “delegitimisers,” Israel should adopt “relationship-based diplomacy with elites;” “engage the critics;” “isolate the delegiti­misers;” “NGOs to engage with NGOs;” “mobilise Jewish and Is­raeli diaspora communities;” “let the local pro-Israel community lead the effort and reorganisation of the foreign affairs establish­ment.”

Since the publication of the report, it would appear Israel has taken its recommendations on board. It has certainly strength­ened its relationship-based diplomacy with elite figures and institutions, most significantly perhaps in the United States and Britain.

All major US presidential candi­dates in 2016 except Bernie Sand­ers addressed the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the main Is­rael lobby group — affirming their unequivocal support for Israel. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the Conservative Friends of Israel expressing her unshakeable commitment to the country.

Israel has attempted to draw a distinction between “legitimate criticism”’ and ”demonisation and delegitimisation” by trying to establish a line of criticism that, if crossed, moves into demonisation and criticism.

Here, too, Britain and the United States have moved to support this and indeed to accuse the United Nations and some of its agen­cies, including the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and UNESCO, as having crossed it. Britain put the UNHRC “on notice” for its focus on Israel and the United States re­cently moved to shift the focus of the UN Security Council’s security concerns in the region to Iran.

A special focus of Israel’s efforts to distinguish between “critics” and “deligitimisers” has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanc­tions (BDS) movement. While on the one hand dismissing its effectiveness, it has identified it as an “existential threat.” It set up a task force, initially funded with $25 million, under the Strategic Affairs Ministry led by Gilad Erdan to target the BDS movement.

In February 2016, during the Global Coalition for Israel confer­ence in Jerusalem, Erdan outlined Israel’s strategies for combating the movement that has gained momentum in recent years. Erdan said he hoped that the meeting would signify a turning point in the fight against delegitimisa­tion. “BDS is spreading to more and more countries and fields” he said. His colleague Yisrael Katz, minister for transportation went further, saying: “Israel must carry out targeted civil thwarting of the leadership [of BDS].”

Erdan concluded by stating that Jewish communities around the world play a crucial role. Telling them “you are on the ground and know what is going on.” “I can’t do it alone. We are all on the front line together,” he said.

A combination of mobilising the elite and what are claimed to be “jewish community” organisa­tions, which are in fact pro-israel organisations, has seen a marked rise in the silencing or at least the attempted silencing of israel’s critics. This has targeted “centres for delegitimisation,” identified by the reut report — namely london, paris, toronto, madrid, brussels and the san francisco bay area.

Attempts to silence critics have included the conflation of anti-semitism and anti-zionism through the creation and promo­tion of a definition of the former to encompass criticism of israel and labelling bds as anti-semitic. Venues that are booked to host pro-palestinian events have been targeted and warned that they are hosting “anti-semitic” events or allowing platforms to anti-semites and “promoters of terror.”

Recently, the israeli knesset passed a law banning proponents of bds from entering israel, even if they promote a boycott of illegal settlements. If fully implemented, the law, which was heavily criti­cised even by jewish organisations in the west, would also deny entry to jews who promote boycotts.

Observers said the attempts to silence critics were not working but were reinforcing israel’s im­age of a bully that claims to be a democracy but then silences free speech, a key democratic value.

Banning BDS supporters is incompatible with a Western-style democracy

First published by the Middle East Eye on 14/3/2017

The next time you hear Israel laud its democratic credentials, remember the ban on BDS supporters and take it with a pinch of salt

Israel’s parliament began the year with a volley of bills designed to entrench its occupation of the Palestinian territories, insult the indigenous Palestinian population and place a heavy price on anyone critical of its policies.

What is particularly galling is that to achieve this, it has used its loudly touted claim to be a Western-style democracy.

The year kicked off with the passing of the “regulation bill” on 6 February 2017, designed unashamedly to retroactively “legalise” 4,000 Jewish Israeli homes which were previously deemed illegal under Israel’s own laws.

The bill, supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was condemned by human rights group Peace Now which described it as a “fatal blow to democracy” and, if passed, would “turn Israeli citizens to thieves and stain Israel’s law books”.

While Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, did call the law unconstitutional and while it is likely to eventually be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, its initial passage shows a dangerous direction of travel for Israeli democracy.

Silencing the call to prayer

On 12 February, Israeli ministers endorsed a draft bill, which would restrict the Muslim call to prayers. In the draft, the athan, the Muslim call to prayer – and an integral part of Palestinian culture and history since the siege of Jerusalem in 637 AD – was insultingly characterised as “noise pollution”.

Those initiating the bill argued that it disturbs non-Muslims – or more specifically, illegal settlers who have moved into predominantly Palestinian areas including East Jerusalem.

With the two bills and under the guise of a democracy and responding to the wishes of its citizens, Israel is using its predominantly Jewish Israeli votes in the Knesset to target Muslim history and Palestinian culture.

‘Threat to the state’

The impact of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on Israel was downplayed by Israeli leaders until 2015, the 10th anniversary of the launch of the boycott call by Palestinian civil society.

Suddenly, it was identified as a “strategic threat to the state” and one which both Israeli leaders and supporters of Israel around the world decided to combat. In response, Netanyahu appointed Gilad Erdan as minister of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy, to tackle both BDS activism and Iran’s nuclear programme. Several pro-Israeli organisations and individuals gathered to find the most effective ways to quash the movement they described as seeking to delegitimise Israel and later labelled as anti-Semitic. Some $25m was allocated to their fight.

Last March, at the Yediot Achronot conference in Jerusalem, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Several months later, Israeli authorities imposed a travel ban on Barghouti. His residency status in Israel continues to be under threat.

With the BDS movement showing no signs of abating, Israel has since moved to pressure its allies to quash and criminalise it in their own countries. It has also worked hard to push back against rising support for the Palestinian cause and against its oppressive policies on university campuses in the West.

Some US states have moved to criminalise boycotts, such as in California and New York. France’s highest court of appeal ruled that promoters of a boycott against Israel were “guilty of inciting hate or discrimination”, while a Paris Municipality recently passed anti-BDS resolutions. The UK government has specifically outlawed local authorities from using their pension policies to participate in the movement.

Banning boycotters

BDS supporters, however, have been, for the most part, free to enter Israel – to observe the situation on the ground and engage with groups promoting boycotts. But this changed on 6 March when the Knesset passed a law banning any foreign citizen who supports or promotes the boycott of Israel from entering.

In a statement after the bill passed, the parliament said: “A visa will not be granted nor a residence permit of any kind to any person who is not an Israeli citizen or permanent resident if he, or the organisation or body in which he is active, has knowingly issued a public call to boycott the state of Israel or pledged to take part in such a boycott.”

The law was quickly slammed by Jewish groups around the world including Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL tweeted: “Israel’s democracy, pluralism, open society serve as best defense against BDS. New law harms rather than helps.”

In Britain, Jewish groups including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council and Union of Jewish Students criticised the move, calling it “anti-democratic”, “indiscriminate” and “deeply problematic”.

The first to be banned

The first victim of the new travel ban was Hugh Lanning, chairman of the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign. A longstanding human rights campaigner, Lanning was denied entry to Israel this past Sunday, less than a week after the passing of the bill.

Lanning, a frequent traveller to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, had never been barred from entry before, so it is reasonable to assume that the new law is behind his barring. Shortly after his entry was denied, Yiftah Curiel, spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London, tweeted: “Lanning is the chairman of the PSC, an organisation that leads the campaign in the UK to demonise and boycott Israel.”

PSC Chair Hugh Lanning

In a statement on Monday, PSC director Ben Jamal said: “By introducing this law, Israel is violating fundamental freedoms essential to a democracy – the right to free speech, to criticise government policies and human rights violations, the right to advocate non-violent actions to address human rights abuses, the right of free movement and travel. A democratic country does not behave in the way Israel is behaving.”

Lanning, who is now safely back in the UK, told MEE: “What an honour – the first to be deported using the law.” He added that his questioning was “long and bizarre, mainly focused on people I had met, what I did as a chair, was I politically active?” More importantly, Lanning was “never charged with or accused of doing anything wrong on this or previous visits.”

He reiterated Jamal’s statement that: “If Israel believes that by introducing these draconian undemocratic laws it will intimidate its critics into silence it is mistaken. The PSC will not stop raising its voice to highlight the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself.”

Messages of support for Lanning and condemnation of the ban and his deportation have poured in, privately and over social media. Examples include trade unions PCS, UNITE and ASLEF.

Even from among Israel’s supporters, the sentiment is that this ban is a step too far. An integral part of any western-style democracy is freedom of expression. Israel’s initial objection to academic boycotts was that they restricted the opportunity to debate and criticise.

Now, by passing this law, it has closed the door itself on dialogue that could take place in Israel and the occupied territories. Not only does democracy lose, but Israel also loses support from those that gave it the benefit of the doubt as the self-proclaimed “only democracy in the Middle East”. This includes support from Jews with an actual connection to Israel through family members who may now be denied entry because they support a limited boycott of goods made in illegal settlements.

The next time you hear Israel laud its democratic credentials, take it with a pinch of salt.

Expecting more of the same for Palestinians

First published by the Arab Weekly on 25/12/2016

London – Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims are looking back with deep concern at a year in which they saw their struggle for freedom and independence bat­tered.

The Palestinians end the year with no sign of reconciliation be­tween the main political factions Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which governs the West Bank. Gaza’s siege continues unabated, Jewish settlements are expanding and Israeli settler in­cursions into Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque grow in number and fre­quency.

Fatah’s seventh congress includ­ed a marathon 3-hour speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that simply confirmed com­mitment to the established direc­tion of travel. Abbas was re-elected party chairman and he, in turn, re­affirmed his commitment to nego­tiations with Israel for the ultimate goal of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with minor land swaps and with East Jerusalem as its capital and a fair resolution of the refugee problem.

The Palestinians find their cause, which once took centre stage, com­peting with Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen for international attention. Israel has benefited from the di­version of attention away from its continued illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and its daily oppressive practices.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly reminds his allies that Israel faces major threats in a tough neighbourhood. He claims that this is the wrong time for Israel to concede territory to the Palestinians, which may al­low either Hamas or the Islamic State (ISIS) to establish a foothold in the West Bank, threatening Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion International Airport.

The status quo is that Israel effec­tively controls the whole of historic Palestine, further colonises Pales­tinian land, judaises Jerusalem and blockades Gaza. The Palestinian Authority provides it with security cooperation that Abbas considers sacred. Israel is therefore comfort­able, despite occasional uprisings.

Add to that a deal with the out­going US administration to deliver $38 billion in military aid over the next ten years and a promise to protect it from any criticism or im­position of a peace deal at the UN Security Council and 2016 can be considered to have been an excel­lent year for the 68-year old state.

However, that is not the end of the good news for Israel. The 2016 Republican Party platform for the first time rejected the description of Israel as “an occupier”, omitted any mention of a two-state solu­tion and conflated settlements with Israel itself.

During the campaign, US Presi­dent-elect Donald Trump first de­clared his intention to be “neutral” on the Palestinians and Israel so as to broker a deal but he changed his tune when he spoke at the con­ference of the main Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He not only de­clared his unwavering support for Israel but promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusa­lem, a position his advisers reiter­ated after his election.

If implemented, this would break long-standing US policy and is guaranteed to generate unprec­edented anger among Palestinians and their supporters around the world.

US President Barack Obama has, it seems, given up on any last-minute moves to reignite the peace process or to impose some pres­sure on Israel through the Secu­rity Council. However, he remains committed to the two-state solu­tion, despite some senior Israeli of­ficials’ calls for it to be abandoned.

Speaking at the Saban Forum, an annual gathering of senior Israeli and US policymakers, US Secretary of State John Kerry concluded that “more than 50% of the ministers in the current Israeli government have publicly stated they are op­posed to a Palestinian state and that there will be no Palestinian state”.

He said Israeli settlement con­struction is a deliberate obstacle to peace and warned that such expansion was undermining any hope of a two-state solution. Kerry was speaking as the Knesset was about to move forward on a bill that would legalise illegal settle­ment outposts in the West Bank, despite the world being united in considering all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem il­legal.

Efforts by France to have a peace conference before the end of the year also failed. French President François Hollande could not even convince Netanyahu to attend a pre-Christmas meeting with Abbas in Paris. Netanyahu would only ac­cept such an invitation if France gave up on its peace initiative, ren­dering the meeting useless.

Perhaps the real reason for Netanyahu declining the French invitation is that on January 20th Trump moves into the White House. Why engage with France or anyone else when Trump and his administration are making the right noises as far as Israel is concerned?

Trump’s election has further em­boldened Israeli leaders including Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who declared “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause”. This conclusion by Bennett is a reflec­tion of Israeli thinking at the high­est level.

While many have been argu­ing for some time that Israel has been making a two-state solution impossible through changing the situation on the ground, it is now being declared dead by its main backer, the United States.

It is therefore likely that as the centenary of Balfour Declaration is marked in 2017, together with the 50th anniversary of the Israeli oc­cupation, we will be no nearer to a resolution to the conflict. With this the Palestinian leadership is likely to turn to international institu­tions, including the International Criminal Court, to pursue actions against Israel to at the very least remind the international commu­nity of the need to find a solution.

As for ordinary citizens around the world, it seems that support­ing the Palestinians through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is the main form of effective solidarity they can exercise to help the Palestinians reach their legitimate goals of free­dom, equality and independence.