Monday, February 19, 2018

Are weapons at the heart of Britain's romance with Israel?

What are British politicians really saying when they wax lyrical about Israel? Do they genuinely believe the myths about it being a thriving democracy? Or are they in awe of how Israel can – quite literally – get away with murder?

Gavin Williamson, Britain’s defense secretary, has hinted that there is something rotten behind the romance. After celebrating Israel as a “beacon of light and hope” during a recent speech, he described its military investments as “impressive.”

If Williamson has done a modicum of homework, he must know that the Israeli weapons industry brags – albeit in a coded way – about testing its products on Palestinians living under siege and occupation. His fawning betrayed an admiration for how a profitable industry has been built through subjugating an entire people.

The fawning occurred when Williamson addressed a reception organized by Conservative Friends of Israel, a pressure group within Britain’s ruling party. He was among kindred spirits: it is unlikely to a be a coincidence that some of the group’s most ardent supporters are also lobbyists for the arms industry.

Take James Arbuthnot. In 2015, Arbuthnot was hired by Thales UK, a branch of the French weapons-maker Thales. He had previously chaired Conservative Friends of Israel. He also sat in the British parliament for 28 years.

Announcing the recruitment, Thales UK stated that Arbuthnot would join its advisory board. As its advisers are not “formal officers” of the company, they are “expressly prohibited” from lobbying on its behalf, Thales added.

Submarine supporter

While Arbuthnot may not have directly solicited business for Thales since then, he has taken part in discussions of relevance to the firm.

After his appointment by Thales, Arbuthnot later in 2015 joined the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber in the British parliament. He has used that platform to advocate that Britain should develop four nuclear submarines.

Thales works on Britain’s nuclear submarine program. By opposing disarmament, Arbuthnot was pushing a political agenda conducive to his employer and the wider arms industry.

Does Arbuthnot erase all thought of the fees he receives from Thales every time he chats with contacts amassed during his political career?

Arbuthnot remains active in Conservative Friends of Israel. Earlier this month, he attended a discussion between the group and Ofir Akunis, Israel’s science minister and a hardline apologist for the theft of Palestinian land.

Devoted to drones

Going by Arbuthnot’s track record, it is highly unlikely that he availed of that occasion to scold Akunis. Arbuthnot has backed Israel’s acts of aggression and their enablers. At the time of the 2011 Arab uprisings, he effectively praised Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, for his role in enforcing Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

The ghastly consequences of Mubarak’s orders were that Gaza’s inhabitants had no way of escaping Israel’s bombs during Operation Cast Lead, a major offensive two years earlier. Writing for the website Conservative Home, Arbuthnot ignored those consequences, while noting with apparent favor that Mubarak “kept the border [between Egypt and Gaza] secure.”

Arbuthnot’s support for Israel cannot be disentangled from his work on strengthening the weapons industry. He spent a total of nine years heading a key parliamentary committee on military issues. In that capacity, he tried to justify drones by contending that their operators had been unfairly maligned as “video gaming ‘warrior geeks.’”

That vote of confidence in remote-controlled killing machines probably did not go unnoticed by his current employer. Thales is developing a drone program known as Watchkeeper for the British Army. Another partner in that program is Elbit, the Israeli weapons giant.

Conservative Friends of Israel is also linked to Elbit. The lobby group’s erstwhile director, Stuart Polak, is a leading figure in a “political strategy” firm that numbers Elbit among its clients.

Like Arbuthnot, Polak joined the House of Lords in 2015. Last year, he was found to have arranged meetings between Priti Patel, then a British government minister, and a number of Israeli politicians without respecting official protocol.

Patel resigned her ministerial post amid the ensuing controversy, yet there were no repercussions for Polak – beyond some possible damage to his reputation.

Trip to Turkey

Polak and Arbuthnot both participated in a recent trip to Turkey, where they met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president.

Hilal Kaplan, who wrote a puff piece on the visit for Istanbul newspaper the Daily Salah, observed that it took place following two lucrative weapons deals between Turkey and Britain. Kaplan did not spell out the British lords’ own connections to the arms industry or the pro-Israel lobby.

The lords appear to have been on their best behavior in Turkey, implicitly expressing their approval for its actions against Kurdish fighters in Syria. Their friendly gestures towards Erdogan are significant, considering that the Turkish president has posed as a defender of Palestinian rights.

As Polak is arguably Britain’s top pro-Israel lobbyist, it is hard to believe that he hasn’t briefed that state’s politicians or diplomats about his Turkish sojourn. It was financed by the Bosphorus Center for Global Affairs, an organization that monitors press coverage unfavorable to Erdogan.

The pro-Israel lobby in Britain is secretive about its precise activities, including its relationship to the arms industry. For all their talk about beacons of light, Israel’s supporters keep many things in the dark.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 16 February 2018.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Palestinian children need no lectures from Emily Thornberry

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.

Monday, January 29, 2018

EU spreads more lies about Palestine solidarity movement

One of the few good things about having a belligerent boor as US president is that it has prompted the media to be less obsequious.

When Donald Trump describes much of Africa, Haiti and Central America as “shithole countries,” CNN describes him as racist.

When Trump says something that is patently false, journalists write that he has lied.

It would be wrong, though, if adversarial reporting or commentary is confined to him. Every politician or institution who seeks to mislead should be exposed.

Vera Jourova, the European Union’s justice commissioner, is one such politician.

On a number of occasions in the recent past, she and her entourage have told lies about campaigners who demand justice for Palestine.

Using the EU’s freedom of information rules, I obtained a briefing paper drawn up for Jourova that reeked of dishonesty.

The paper was written by Brussels officials ahead of a visit that Jourova undertook to Jerusalem in June last year. It alleges that anti-Semitism “functions as [an] essential link for right-wing, left-wing and religious (Christian and Muslim) extremist ideologies blaming the Jews or ‘Israel’ as [a] Jewish collective for every evil in the world.”

Not surprisingly, the officials failed to provide any evidence of that “essential link.”

Palestine is an important issue for many campaigners who also believe in wealth redistribution and public ownership of key services and industries – left-wing ideas that Jourova’s advisers seem to dismiss as “extremist.”

Yet insisting that the oppression inflicted on Palestinians must end is entirely different to claiming that Israel lurks behind “every evil in the world” – a claim that no principled and well-informed activist would make.

Dubious

Jourova’s briefing paper is largely based on a dubious definition of anti-Semitism, rubber-stamped by a little-known body called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

That definition conflates robust criticism of Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, with bigotry against Jews.

The definition has been invoked to stifle free expression: last year some British universities cited it when imposing bans or restrictions on awareness-raising events known as Israeli Apartheid Week.

Nonetheless, Jourova’s briefing paper argues that the definition is not an “infringement on free speech.” The paper adds that the “definition clearly says that when someone denies Israel’s right to exist, he must live with the fact that someone else may call him an anti-Semite. Freedom of speech is a two-way street.”

The definition is far more ambiguous than Jourova’s advisers imply. And it certainly does not state that people who question Israel’s “right to exist” must live with being called anti-Semites.

The word “must” is not included in the definition or its accompanying memorandum. But the memo suggests that examples of anti-Semitism “could” include “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” by “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Moreover, the briefing paper’s claim that the “non-legally binding” adoption of the definition by the EU and some of its governments does not infringe on free speech is highly disingenuous: Jourova calls for the definition to be “used widely” for training police, teachers and other officials.

It’s one thing to be falsely called an “anti-Semite” in, say, an online argument with a random person, but quite another to smeared as one by a government official or a law enforcement agency that might use the definition to charge you with hate speech for opposing Zionism. Why must any citizen in a free society have to live with that?

Smears

Jourova’s briefing paper contains at least one fact amid the fiction: “Israel strongly advocated for the definition.” That is the crux of the matter. Rather than being a tool for protecting Jews around the world, the real objective of the definition is to shield Israel from questions about its legitimacy.

As I have previously documented, the definition was written by a consortium of pro-Israel lobby groups (originally as part of an EU-sponsored initiative).

It is significant that Jourova and her entourage have interpreted – or perhaps misinterpreted – the definition in the way they have.

Israel came into existence after the mass expulsion of Palestinians. A state that was formed as a result of ethnic cleansing does not have an inherent right to exist. Pointing that out does not make someone guilty of anti-Semitism – no matter what Jourova and her entourage may think.

This is not the first time that Jourova’s advisers have smeared Palestine solidarity activists.

Separate briefing notes prepared for Jourova earlier in 2017 painted a false picture of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement by insinuating that it favored discrimination against Jews.

A similar insinuation can be found in the paper prepared for her aforementioned trip to Jerusalem. “BDS activities leading to incitement, discrimination and hatred against Jews in Europe are unacceptable,” the paper states. No evidence is provided to show how BDS campaigning causes such hostility.

Jourova works closely with Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU’s anti-Semitism coordinator.

Von Schnurbein has gone even further by alleging it is anti-Semitic to describe Israel as an apartheid state or to view Zionism as a racist ideology.

Perhaps von Schnurbein is unaware that when South Africa was under white minority rule, its leaders identified enormously with Israel. Hendrik Verwoerd put it bluntly when he was South Africa’s prime minister in 1961. “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state,” he said.

More recently, a UN report from 2017 concluded it is “beyond reasonable doubt” that Israel commits the crime of apartheid.

Israel and the US couldn’t handle that truth, so they attacked the report and its authors.

The EU’s representatives are little better. They, too, seem intent on replacing the truth with lies.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 24 January 2018.

Friday, December 22, 2017

We will work with Holocaust deniers, says leading pro-Israel group

Israel’s supporters appear confident that Poland’s government – which refuses to accept some facts about the Holocaust – will be an important ally when it joins the United Nations Security Council in the new year.


The European Leadership Network, a pro-Israel lobby group, has reported that assurances were recently given by unnamed Polish officials about their country’s intentions.


The Israeli government was told towards the end of last month that it “can count” on Poland’s backing in 2018 and 2019, according to a briefing paper drawn up by the lobby group. Poland will be a temporary member of the Security Council over that period.


“Israel looks to Poland as one of the friendliest countries in the European Union,” the briefing paper – unpublished until now – adds. “Today, Poland helps improve the language of EU resolutions affecting Israeli interests and its voting record at the United Nations is better than many [other] EU member states.”


The briefing paper was drafted before this week’s debate in the UN General Assembly. Poland was one of the 35 countries to abstain in a vote condemning the recent announcement by Donald Trump that the US will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.


The European Leadership Network’s office in Warsaw is headed by Jacek Olejnik, who has worked in the diplomatic services of both Poland and Israel.


His team is willing to cooperate closely with the Polish government, the briefing paper suggests, despite how the ruling Law and Justice party has reacted with hostility when crimes committed against Jews on Polish soil have come under scrutiny.


One government minister has even suggested it was merely an “opinion” to state that Poles carried out a 1941 massacre of Jews in the Jedwabne area during the Nazi occupation of the country.


Valued client


The European Leadership Network goes so far as to allege that Law and Justice is “in denial” over how Polish citizens were involved in murders of Jews during the Holocaust.


Nonetheless, the group notes that prominent figures in Law and Justice take positions favorable to Israel.


Anna Fotyga, a former foreign minister who now represents that party in the European Parliament, is praised in the aforementioned briefing paper for opposing the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Fotyga has called on the EU to ensure that it does not fund any organization that endorses the boycott of Israel.


When I asked if any assurances were given to Israel ahead of Poland joining the Security Council, the foreign ministry in Warsaw did not answer the question. The ministry fudged the issue by replying that Poland had “always been a supporter of a balanced approach” that would guarantee “the security of Israel,” while “taking into account Palestinian state-building aspirations.”


It is significant that the European Leadership Network perceives Poland as a key ally for both the US and Israel. The European Leadership Network is closely connected to the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.


The briefing paper identifies Poland as a valued client for Israel’s weapons industry. In July this year, Poland’s defense ministry agreed to buy a missile interceptor system called David’s Sling, designed by the Israeli firm Rafael. According to the European Leadership Network, that was “one of the largest orders the company ever received.”


Rafael, a state-owned weapons producer, is a profiteer of Israel’s attacks on Palestinians. For example, the Tamuz missiles that it manufactures were used during the major offensive against Gaza in the summer of 2014.


Bigoted


The European Leadership Network also states that it has “developed relations” with high-ranking officials such as Pawel Soloch, head of Poland’s National Security Bureau.


Earlier this year, Soloch described Muslim communities as “a natural feeding ground” for “terrorists.”


His bigotred remarks were reported sympathetically by the US website Breitbart and other racist publications.


In the recent past, Israel’s supporters have been happy to work with political parties and governments with extremist views.


The European Leadership Network has expressed a willingness to cooperate with the far-right Alternative for Germany as some of its members have publicly backed Israel’s settlement activities in the occupied West Bank.


Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is remaining in contact with the newly formed Austrian government, although seeking to avoid direct meetings with ministers who are part of the neo-Nazi Freedom Party.


But this may be just for show, as lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud have already been forged close ties with the Freedom Party.


Netanyahu has, meanwhile, hailed his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban as a stout defender of Israel in international forums. The same Viktor Orban has eulogized the Hitler-allied wartime Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy who facilitated the transit of Jews to Auschwitz.


A few months ago, Netanyahu said it was “crazy” that the EU has attached conditions to its relations with Israel. Netanyahu did not spell out that the Union has never imposed robust sanctions on Israel when those conditions – which include respect for human rights – were not met.


Netanyahu’s comments were made to the leaders of Poland and Hungary. The EU’s conditions are contained in an “association agreement” that entered into force in 2000. As Poland and Hungary only joined the Union four years later, they are not historically responsible for the EU’s tacit policy of complaining about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, while simultaneously hugging Israel – the oppressor – tighter.


The inference behind Netanyahu’s point was that some EU governments are less “crazy” than others. The right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary are not likely to berate Israel. They are happy to do business without asking awkward questions. Perhaps that is why Israel feels it can count on them.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 21 December 2017.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

When Britain turned Palestine into a "second Ireland"

I live near a shrine dedicated to the British military commander Bernard Montgomery. Located on a tree-lined avenue that leads to a triumphal arch, this statue of Montgomery in Brussels illustrates how some Europeans regard him as a hero for his role during World War II. In truth, Montgomery was a thug. That became clear when I read his handwritten notes in Britain’s national archives.


During 1938, Montgomery took charge of an infantry division in Palestine. In that role, he helped suppress a major revolt. His advice – preserved in the aforementioned handwritten notes – was that Britain, then administering Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, should display little mercy.


Rebels “must be hunted down relentlessly,” he wrote. “When engaged in battle with them, we must shoot to kill.”


Although he advocated that soldiers be “scrupulously fair” towards Palestinians not taking part in the revolt, he contended that “if they assist the rebels in any way, they must expect to be treated as rebels.”


Those instructions were issued in a situation where Britain had been anything but fair. Soon after the revolt erupted in 1936, the British authorities demolished Jaffa’s Old City, leaving thousands of its residents homeless. That set a pattern whereby entire communities would be penalized for failing to obey their oppressors. The British, for example, categorized villages where rebels lived as hostile and were known to round up all of the men living in them.


In practice, the British authorities drew no real distinction between combatants and civilians. The activities of Israel today bear a strong resemblance to those of Britain. As part of efforts to erect a smokescreen around its crimes in Gaza, Israel has designated that whole territory as “hostile.”


“You must be ruthless”


About 15 years before his time in Palestine, Montgomery had made similar comments about his experiences in Ireland.


While Ireland’s War of Independence was being fought during the 1920s, Montgomery served as a brigade major in Cork. Upon request, he wrote a memorandum on his experiences for a senior British Army officer.


“Personally, my whole attention was given to defeating the rebels and it never bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt,” he wrote. “I think I regarded all civilians as ‘Shinners’ and I never had any dealings with them.”


“Shinner” is slang for someone connected to Sinn Féin, the Irish republican organization.


Montgomery argued “that to win a war of this sort you must be ruthless,” adding, “Oliver Cromwell, or the Germans, would have settled it in a very short time.” Cromwell was an Englishman who led an invasion of Ireland during the 17th century. To the Irish, his name remains synonymous with massacres carried out by his troops.


Montgomery arrived in Cork during January 1921. A few weeks earlier British forces had burned down more than 60 shops there, as well as the city hall and the main library. Around 2,000 jobs were lost as a consequence.


A recent study by historians Andy Bielenberg and James Donnelly concludes that British forces resorted to a “crude strategy” in the Cork area. Mainly implemented in 1921, it involved the shooting dead of people who allegedly failed to stop when ordered by British forces. Seventeen civilians were killed because of that “strategy,” according to the two historians.


Expendable


One year later, the media boss Alfred Harmsworth – owner of mass circulation British papers like The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror – paid a visit to Palestine.


Despite being an archetypal establishment figure, Harmsworth – who died shortly after that trip – was shocked by the effects of British policy in Palestine. Harmsworth “declared that we were making a second Ireland of that country,” the journalist J.M.N. Jeffries wrote.


A new edition of Jeffries’ 1939 book Palestine: The Reality was published this year. About eight decades may have passed since that 750-page tome was written, yet it remains painfully relevant.


Palestine was, indeed, transformed into something of a “second Ireland.”


Both countries suffered the effects of settler-colonial projects, sponsored by the British authorities. Both were subjected to British brutality – often carried out by the same individuals. Montgomery was among many members of Britain’s “security” forces who were stationed in Ireland before being sent to Palestine.


Jeffries’ book stresses that the men who drafted the Balfour Declaration – Britain’s 1917 pledge of support for Zionist colonization – mostly treated indigenous Palestinians as expendable. The British government, he wrote, “passed the Arabs by completely, as though they did not exist.”


Montgomery’s advice on Palestine was not always accepted by Britain’s political elite.


Two armed Zionist groups, the Irgun and the Lehi, came to regard Britain as an obstacle to the realization of their aims. In the 1940s, they waged a campaign of assassination and bombing against Britain’s diplomats and troops.


By that time, Montgomery had been promoted to chief of imperial general staff in the British Army. Complaining that Britain had a “policy of appeasement” towards Zionist armed groups, he advocated that heavy force should be used against them.


That advice was rejected by Alan Cunningham, the last British high commissioner for Palestine. Cunningham felt that Britain remained duty-bound to nurture the Zionist project.


The episode says much about how Britain’s support for Zionism has endured against considerable odds. It underscores, too, the egregious double standards of the British authorities. An iron fist approach was applied towards the people they viewed as expendable; their protégés, by contrast, were treated with kid gloves.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 15 December 2017.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Journalists must refuse Israeli junkets

Reporters working for mainstream media educated many people – myself included – about South African apartheid.

Some press associations are rightly proud of their anti-racist history. The National Union of Journalists for Britain and Ireland now celebrates how it supported the international campaign to boycott and isolate the white minority regime in Pretoria.

But the need to fight bigotry around the world did not end when Nelson Mandela was released from prison or elected president.

Palestinians endure the “worst version of apartheid,” Mandla Mandela – Nelson’s grandson – stated recently. He is among many South Africans who have argued that the system of racial discrimination enforced by Israel is more extreme than the one they encountered. His grandfather called Palestine the “greatest moral issue of our time.”

So far, the NUJ – of which I am a member – has declined to endorse the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

And the union’s code of ethics says nothing about what reporters should do if offered junkets by major human rights abusers such as Israel.

The need for clear guidance has become more pressing as Israel ramps up its propaganda activities.

Tantrum

Next year, the Giro d’Italia – a major cycling race – will start in Jerusalem.

Hoping to garner some favorable publicity, Israel and its supporters are already organizing press trips ahead of the event.

Richard Abraham, a cycling writer, has admitted that a recent visit he made to the Middle East was “paid for by the Israelis” as part of a charm offensive. Significantly, his disclosure was included in a reflective article for a publication called Rouleur, rather than in a news feature on the same topic that Abraham wrote for The Guardian – a more widely-read newspaper with a declared desire to discover and tell the truth.

By coincidence, I arrived in Italy last week on the day that the route for the 2018 Giro was unveiled. The announcement – made during a glitzy event in Milan – sparked a tantrum from the Israeli government, which objected when the Giro administrators referred to the starting location as “West Jerusalem.”

Israel’s tantrum proved effective. Promptly, the word “West” was dropped from the Giro’s official website.

The row illustrated how bringing an Italian competition to Jerusalem is a blatant propaganda exercise. Jerusalem is being promoted as a city of harmony. The reality that Palestinians in the city live under military occupation must not interfere with the image that Israel wishes to project.

Image manipulation

We got a taste of the image manipulation a few months ago. According to the Israeli authorities, the aim of starting the Giro in Jerusalem was to demonstrate how the city was “open to all.”

My traveling companion in Italy – Fareed Taamallah – has not experienced such openness.

A farmer and political activist in the Ramallah area of the occupied West Bank, Fareed lives around six kilometers from Jerusalem but is seldom allowed to visit that city.

“Israel says it is an open country, that it is a democratic state,” he said. “It is a democratic state for Jews and foreigners. When it comes to Palestinians, it is closed.”

His family has endured much torment because of the restrictions imposed by Israel.

Fareed’s daughter Lina – born in 2002 – has required treatment in Jerusalem’s hospitals for most of her life.

When she was about 18-months-old, Lina was diagnosed with kidney failure.

Lina needed a transplant and a South African friend of her family was identified as a compatible donor. Yet when the South African woman applied for a visa before the transplant operation, she was rejected by the Israeli authorities as she had previously visited Palestine and campaigned against the Israeli occupation. It was only after a documentary-maker – working in tandem with a lawyer – investigated why Israel was endangering Lina’s life that the visa was granted.

Fareed himself has been stopped from seeing his daughter in hospital on many occasions. Lina has to visit Jerusalem for check-ups and treatment every three months. Usually her mother, Ameena, accompanies Lina. A few times, both Fareed and Ameena have been refused permits.

“Humiliated”

In 2014, Lina had to undergo a knee operation in Jerusalem. Fareed wanted to be with his daughter on the day of her surgery. When he sought a permit from Israel’s Civil Administration – a military body that oversees the occupation – “an Israeli soldier told me ‘quit all your [political] activities,’” he said.

Among those activities were Fareed’s work on opposing Israel’s wall in the West Bank and on advocating a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions. Fareed, who helps run an ecological farming project called Sharaka, has insisted that he will remain politically active despite the pressure he has encountered.

“They play with my nerves,” Fareed said, adding that he has given up applying for permits to visit Jerusalem. The ordeal of spending hours waiting in an Israeli military building made him “feel very humiliated,” he said.

Fareed emphasized that his story is “not isolated.” It is common for Palestinians to be obstructed from receiving medical treatment by the Israeli authorities. Israel has a deliberate policy of restricting Palestinians’ movement.

Journalists are being courted by Israel, the very same state that stops parents from visiting their children in hospital.

Israel’s strategic affairs ministry is arranging propaganda trips as part of its aggressive efforts to counter the BDS movement. Lobby groups with whom that ministry works have bragged of taking reporters from well-known media outlets like the BBC and The Daily Mail in Britain and Le Figaro in France on junkets.

Journalists who take part in such trips are allowing themselves to be seduced by an apartheid state. By ignoring Palestinian calls for a boycott, they are siding with the oppressor against the oppressed – the last thing that a journalist should do.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 December 2017.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Why is Ireland's prime minister tagging the Israel lobby on Facebook?

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, is regularly seen attending rock concerts or modeling novelty socks as he attempts to cultivate an image of being hip and humorous.

A recent inquiry made by Varadkar via Facebook about whether he resembled the cartoon character on his coffee mug appeared at first glance to be another example of such contrived lightheartedness.

For some reason, though, Varadkar had “tagged” one person in his post. That person, Barry Williams, happens to be Ireland’s most ardent supporter of Israel.

The taoiseach – as Ireland’s prime minister is called – offered no explanation about why the note was addressed to Williams, who runs the group Irish4Israel. And multiple requests for comment to Varadkar and his office went unanswered.

Why the silence? The Irish public is broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight. Any connections that Varadkar has to Williams and Irish4Israel are, therefore, matters of public interest.

If they are simply friends, that is not problematic as such. But if Williams is using that friendship to lobby on behalf of a foreign government – Israel – then the public has a right to know about it.

Varadkar has previously displayed greater sympathy towards Israel than most other politicians in the south of Ireland.

Overblown?

In 2004 – then a member of a local authority for the Dublin area – Varadkar appeared to defend US policies on the Middle East. Writing to The Irish Times, Varadkar described as “overblown” the criticism heaped on George W. Bush, then the US president, who had told Israel that it may retain some colonies it had built in the occupied West Bank as part of a “final peace settlement.”

Following his election to the Oireachtas – Ireland’s parliament – in 2007, Varadkar signaled that he was in favor of greater trade with Israel. When he later became a transport minister in the Dublin government, Varadkar sought parliamentary approval of an EU-Israel aviation deal during 2013 as a matter of “urgency.”

EU diplomats recently credited this “open skies” agreement with facilitating a surge of visits to Israel by tourists from certain European countries.

Varadkar appeared to distance himself from Ireland’s small pro-Israel lobby while Gaza was under attack the following year. In a tweet, he denied belonging to a “friends of Israel” group within the Oireachtas.

But Varadkar has never formally retracted his earlier declarations of support for Israel. And the need for transparency about where he stands is all the more pressing now that Varadkar is taoiseach.

Israel has made clear that it wishes to change what Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, has called Ireland’s “traditional stance” of supporting Palestinians.

Mystery of the mug

Netanyahu was exaggerating the extent of elite support for the Palestinians. Like all other EU governments, Ireland has been hugely accommodating to Israel for a couple of decades at least.

Netanyahu nonetheless wants Ireland to go further. For example, he wants organizations that campaign against Israel’s human rights abuses to be denied financial assistance.

The agenda pursued by Irish4Israel is strongly in line with Netanyahu’s stance. The group frequently tries to portray Palestine solidarity campaigners as extreme and unreasonable.

When Mike Murphy, a veteran Irish broadcaster, recently participated in a trip to the occupied West Bank and wrote about the oppression he witnessed, the group called his article “vile.”

Aggressive tactics of that nature are unlikely to win Irish4Israel too many friends among the public.

But if the group has the prime minister onside, perhaps it feels emboldened. That’s all the more reason why Varadkar must end the mystery surrounding his mug.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 15 November 2017.