The detention of Palestinian children is a clear-cut issue. Israeli forces have no right to apprehend youngsters living under military occupation. Those youngsters, by contrast, have every right to resist the theft of their homeland.
Why should British politicians try and lecture an oppressed people? That is a question for Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, to consider. She has suggested that Britain’s should tell kids not to throw stones at an enemy equipped with far more lethal weapons.
Last week Thornberry argued that Britain “must, of course, continue to urge Palestinians of all ages to act peacefully when protesting against the illegal occupation of their lands.” She added: “We must equally urge the Israeli authorities to act in a restrained and proportionate way when facing such protests, especially in relation to young people.”
Thornberry’s comments were contained in a letter to Boris Johnson, the man she wishes to replace as foreign secretary. Though she expressed concern about the plight of Palestinian detainees such as the teenager Ahed Tamimi, Thornberry did not advocate any sanctions against Israel.
Her letter was another indication that a Labour government would not differ in substance from one led by the Conservatives with regard to Middle East policy. She gave an even stronger signal a few months ago, when she assured the Israeli media that the current British approach towards Israel was “entirely in line” with that of Labour.
In tone, Thornberry’s comments on child prisoners were similar to those made by Jennifer Gerber, who directs the pressure group Labour Friends of Israel. Gerber faithfully copies and pastes Israeli propaganda by pointing out that of more than 300 Palestinian children in Israeli jails, most are held for security offences. Israel has been unfairly singled out, according to Gerber. She neglects to mention that Israel is the only state in the world which puts on trial more than 500 children per year in kangaroo courts administered by the military.
The similarities in tone may not be accidental. Thornberry has cultivated strong links with Labour Friends of Israel. Addressing the group’s 2017 annual lunch, she smeared campaigners for a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions by alleging that they are motivated by bigotry against Jews (despite how the Palestine solidarity movement emphatically opposes racial and religious discrimination). Her stance is hypocritical. She has argued that Palestinians should not used violence. Yet when Palestinians adopt peaceful tactics – such as boycotts – Thornberry makes baseless accusations against them.
Thornberry’s smears are redolent of the tactics that the pro-Israel lobby employed against Labour’s overall leader Jeremy Corbyn. By winning a much higher share of the votes in last year’s general election than almost every pundit could imagine, Corbyn has earned respect from many erstwhile critics. Labour Friends of Israel, however, seems unwilling to forgive Corbyn for his history of defending Palestinian rights. The aforementioned Jennifer Gerber has kept on peddling the fiction that Corbyn tolerates anti-Semitism.
Gerber’s case rests on how Labour has not expelled Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor, for pointing out - in a less than polished TV appearance – that the Nazis had struck an accord with the Zionist movement over the transfer of German Jews to Palestine. Recalling historical facts makes you guilty of anti-Semitism, according to Labour Friends of Israel.
Emily Thornberry has enabled the witch-hunt against Palestine solidarity campaigners. She has stated that there is no place in Labour for people who deny Israel’s “right to exist”. Predictably, that has endeared her to Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to Britain whose previous job as spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu saw him try to justify the bombing of Gaza’s schools.
Instructing political activists not to question Israel’s legitimacy is a form of McCarthyism. States do not have an intrinsic right to exist – especially when they are established through the expulsion of an indigenous people. States – like Israel – that are constituted in such a way that they privilege one ethnic group over another must have their “right to exist” examined.
Labour appears to have plenty of room for truly dangerous and destructive people. The last time I checked Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the men who oversaw and found money for the invasion of Iraq – a crime against humanity - were still members. Labour’s most recent manifesto commits Britain to retaining and upgrading Trident. That would mean violating a 1996 verdict from the International Court of Justice confirming that countries with nuclear missiles have an obligation to disarm.
It is perfectly acceptable, then, for Labour activists to support weapons of mass destruction. Yet, under Thornberry’s logic, probing Israel’s origins is taboo.
The stalwarts of Labour’s left have refused to be cowed in the not-so-distant past. John McDonnell complained during a 2012 attack on Gaza that Israel was attempting genocide against the Palestinians. The complaint was accurate: genocide, as defined by the United Nations, involves inflicting physical or mental harm on a people.
McDonnell has not, as far as I know, repeated the charge of genocide since he was appointed shadow chancellor. Doing so would undoubtedly draw an apoplectic response from Labour Friends of Israel.
But why should the principled left be intimidated by the bellicose right, the wing to which Labour Friends of Israel belongs? Before last summer’s election, Corbyn highlighted the connections between Britain’s aggressive foreign policy and what he called “terrorism here at home”. He thereby became the first Labour leader to prove it is possible to win votes by telling the truth about Britain’s often pernicious activities.
Britain’s electorate would mainly welcome a government that holds Israel accountable. And that idea must horrify Labour Friends of Israel. Speakers at the group’s events tend to recite a list of Labour grandees who have been devoted time and energy to the Zionist project. The speakers are too polite to underscore that Labour governments have been complicit in the dispossession of the Palestinians. The ignominious track record of Labour includes how Ramsay MacDonald – prime minister when Britain ruled Palestine between the two world wars – affirmed in 1931 that Zionist colonisers were free to bar Palestinians from jobs. It includes, too, how Harold Wilson’s administration rubber-stamped the exports of battle tanks used by Israel when seizing its neighbour’s territories in June 1967 and how Blair enthusiastically backed the 2006 assault on Lebanon.
For the past few years, Labour Friends of Israel has been chaired by Joan Ryan, an MP who denies that Gaza is under Israeli occupation. That view is contradicted by the voluminous evidence that Israel retains control of Gaza by land, air and sea. Ryan would not dare to visit protesters fired on by Israeli troops on Gaza’s periphery and tell them they are free of the despised occupation.
Thornberry is more nuanced than Ryan but comparably dangerous. Although she professes to shun goods from illegal colonies in the West Bank, Thornberry has said she would buy other Israeli goods “positively”. The distinction is a false one: it depicts the gobbling up of Palestine as an aberration, when it has always been central to the Zionist project.
In a speech last year, Thornberry dismissed people who advocate a one-state solution for Palestine as extremists. She did not explain what is unreasonable about wanting to swap an apartheid system for a democracy that guarantees justice and equality.
First elected in 2005, Thornberry is not responsible for the worst crimes of Blair and Brown. She has every opportunity to ensure that a future Labour government will learn from previous crimes so that they are never repeated. Sadly, she appears to be squandering those opportunities.
●First published by Middle East Eye, 15 February 2018.