Labour’s antisemitism crisis has led to a drop off in pro-Palestinian activism – it’s time we found our voice again
In 2014, the killing of 1,900 Palestinians in the Gaza strip saw 150,000 people take to London’s streets. Yet the UK’s Palestinian solidarity movement has been noticeably muted in recent months
It is eight years since I attended a protest in the West Bank where unarmed Palestinian activist Mustafa Tamimi was killed after being shot in the face with a tear-gas canister at close range by the Israeli army. Horrified by the brutal injustice of his death, I attended Mustafa’s funeral days later. I witnessed the Israeli army shoot the tear gas canisters that killed Mustafa at his grieving family, as they mourned at his graveside.
It often feels that so little has changed since then, and that only the list of Palestinian dead has grown longer. Israel continues to kill Palestinians with impunity, and I never cease to be outraged by the British government’s shameful “diplomatic silence” and its failure to condemn the Israeli government for its actions.
In the last year alone, the Israeli state has killed 194 Palestinians, including 41 children, during the weekly Great March of Return protests that began in Gaza on 30 March 2018. Although a UN report has now suggested that Israel’s actions could constitute war crimes, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt abstained on a vote at the UN last month that would have held Israel responsible for its intentional use of “lethal force” against civilian protesters.
The most infamous of these civilian deaths was that of Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old nurse who was shot in the chest by the Israeli army while wearing her white medic’s uniform as she attended to injured protestors in the Gaza strip.
Britain’s failure to condemn this potential war crime has undoubtedly further emboldened the Israeli state. This week, Israel killed another medic; teenage volunteer medic Sajid Muzher was shot in the abdomen while giving medical attention to protestors in a Bethlehem refugee camp. Young enough to be a student in the sixth form at the school I teach at, Sajid’s death hangs particularly heavy in my mind.
The failures of this government to intervene in these crimes only highlights how important a grassroots Palestinian solidarity movement truly is. After all, we must never forget that while it was Thatcher’s Conservative government who supported South African apartheid to the very end, it was ordinary British people who stood in solidarity with the struggle of South Africans in their fight for equal rights and freedom for all.
Just like South Africa then, the UK’s solidarity movement has repeatedly shown that many people in this country will refuse to stand on the sidelines as the British government allows Israel’s actions to go unchecked.
Tens of thousands of protestors marched through London in 2009 after 400 Palestinians were killed by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead offensive. In 2014, these demonstrations had grown exponentially; the killing of 1,900 Palestinians in the Gaza strip saw 150,000 people take to London’s streets once again.
Yet the UK’s Palestinian solidarity movement has been noticeably muted in recent months; demonstrations outside Downing Street last year in solidarity with Gaza’s Great March of Return saw only around 2,000 activists in attendance, and a protest outside the Israeli embassy this weekend is likely to be much the same size.
There could of course be a myriad of reasons why this is the case. But it is increasingly clear that the antisemitism crisis that has rocked the Labour Party in recent months has deflated the confidence of Labour Party members like me who would have previously taken part in mass demonstrations against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
This is not to deny, of course, the very real, abhorrent cases of antisemitism that do exist within Labour, which must be vociferously challenged. But many now feel that these have become even more difficult to root out because of the way antisemitism has often been conflated with anti-Zionism by those who seek to shut down legitimate criticisms of the Israeli state.
The Palestinian solidarity movement must not be afraid to speak out in the face of such attacks. We need more grassroots actions like those taken by members at the Labour Party conference in 2018, when the hall was filled with delegates waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Free Palestine” as a motion was passed unanimously agreeing to freeze arms sales to Israel, were a Corbyn government to be elected.
Corbyn himself could make a bold statement if he agreed to speak at a national demonstration in London on Saturday 11 May, just as he did in 2009 and 2014 before being elected Labour’s leader. This could reaffirm Corbyn’s long-standing commitment to Palestinians’ liberation, and generate the confidence needed to build a mass solidarity movement once again.
As Palestinians in Gaza take to the streets this weekend to mark the anniversary of the Great March of Return, Israel is unlikely to respond with either caution or restraint, making the UK’s grassroots solidarity movement as important as ever. We must never underestimate the powerful message this international solidarity sends to Palestinians struggling everyday against their oppressors.