The short Gaza conflict has shone a light in Labour’s dark corners

by Rob Marchant

The attacks on both sides have ceased in Gaza and southern Israel and the death tolls have ceased to mount – a sure-fire way to get the issue off the news bulletins again – and an uneasy truce holds. For now.

But, during those eight days, the focus of popular attention briefly fell on what is probably, for the vast majority of its citizens, an issue at the very margins of their daily thinking. Even many of those interested in international affairs have simply given up trying to understand the complex debate on the territorial and governmental rights of Israel and Palestine, or simply feel “a plague on all your houses”. And that is for those who think about it at all.

Except one group of citizens, of course. The political class: not necessarily politicians, but that odd and strangely passionate group, those actively involved in politics. If you are reading this, you are very likely one of them. Everyone has an opinion.

What has happened on the British left during this short period, therefore, is that the somewhat strange, yet long-held, views of some of its members have suddenly had a public airing, where no-one would normally even listen. Often all the complexity of the Israel-Palestine situation, with respectable arguments on both sides for ends if not means, has been reduced to the infantile football-terrace chanting of “my side’s right, your side’s wrong”; and oh, what a revealing set of quotes it has provided.

“We do not hate Jews. We hate Zionism,” shouts George Galloway, seemingly feeling that he really needs to make it clear, speaking to a somewhat disturbing (watch it here) Bradford rally, flanked by two large Palestinian flags. So that’s alright then. Not Jews. Just Zionists.

Or Steve Bell’s unpleasant cartoon – which revived the centuries-old trope of the Jewish puppet-master, but which in the modern-day Guardian, used to printing puff-pieces on Holocaust cartoonists, passes almost without comment.

But we expect hate-filled views from Galloway and unpleasantness from the Guardian. What we might not, perhaps, expect are complementarily unhinged statements by Labour members of parliament.

First there was Yasmin Qureshi MP, who tweeted “Are Tories really blinkered? Israeli is pounding Gaza with thousands of missiles which are lethal unlike Hamas home made few rockets.”

Ah yes, the home-made rockets. The 21-foot Fadjr-5 rockets were not, of course, “home-made” but were technology supplied by Iran and carry 90kg of explosives – as Guido Fawkes, no friend to Labour, delighted in pointing out.

As for not being lethal, this beggars belief. The reason for the low Israeli casualties is self-evidently its anti-missile protection system and the large number landing in open ground (together accounting for over 80% of the rockets). Not because these weapons, specifically designed to be lethal, had somehow failed to be so. And Qureshi is not the only one to make this bizarre statement: Richard Burden MP also describes them as “ramshackle.”

Or when Andy Slaughter MP, the shadow justice minister, quotes on his website, verbatim and at length from the Palestinian Mission UK, the unofficial embassy for Palestine. Naturally, being an arm of the Palestinian Authority, it is not exactly giving objective information, but this does not seem to bother Slaughter in the least:

“The Palestinian Mission UK strongly denounces Israel’s military escalation against the Palestinian people which hinders peaceful efforts made by Palestinians in their campaign for freedom and justice.”

“Peaceful efforts”. Ah, Hamas, that peace-loving bunch of Gandhi-esque holy men. Not suicide-bombing, civilian-targeting terrorists who oppress women and gays, you understand. The whole extract fails, predictably, to mention that any kind of attack is being carried out by Hamas. It is as if what became a final total of 1,506 rockets had simply never existed.

Then there are the increasingly incoherent ramblings of veteran backbencher Gerald Kaufman on the subject of Palestine.  While Kaufman at least makes plain his dislike of terrorists Hamas – not something which all of his colleagues do – he still finds time to describe the Israeli army’s spokesperson’s words as “the reply of a Nazi.”. As ever, one wonders whether a gentile would get away with such language, with or without the benefit of parliamentary privilege.

Or Jeremy Corbyn MP’s irony-free comment that “This is effectively a first world state attacking a poor and largely defenceless population.” Defenceless, that is, except for the 1,506 not-really-lethal Fadjr-5s.

And, incidentally, after a quick Google, Labour Uncut found that Corbyn’s words did not seem to be reported in any UK national newspapers. Just the usual fringe blogs, and…wait for it, PressTV and the FARS news agency, both propaganda mouthpieces for the Iranian regime.

That is, the only coverage that Corbyn seems to achieve with such press statements is from a hostile theocracy with which Britain long ago broke off diplomatic relations, and yet which happily uses the cloak of credibility afforded by a British member of parliament to further its own pernicious, destabilising narrative.

So, albeit briefly, a light has been shone on the views of Labour representatives, regarding an issue which may well, with the rise of a nuclear Iran, come to dominate the geopolitics of the next decade or so. It’s not that Israel is blameless: it’s that there’s no attempt at balance or nuance. Israel is evil, and that’s it.

And in this brief spotlight, the world has seen that Labour on the middle east is a party all over the place. Even at senior levels, it has MPs with infantile, monochrome views on a complex conflict. Some of them people who, just like Galloway, think “Zionist” a terrible insult, to be hurled at anyone who dares to look at the conflict otherwise, in shades of grey.

If peace is ever to come between Israel and Palestine, what the good people of Palestine – and by that we clearly don’t mean Hamas — really need more than anything is better advocates for their legitimate cause. These people are not them.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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18 Responses to “The short Gaza conflict has shone a light in Labour’s dark corners”

  1. Rob,

    Perhaps the “peaceful efforts” citied by the Palestinian Mission UK refer to those of Fatah in the West Bank?

    I might be wrong but it is not clear to me on the basis of the quotation that you provide that they are referring exclusively to Hamas in Gaza, who you rightly describe as non-peaceful.

    Possibly the most damaging aspect of the recent episode is that these non-peaceful methods from Hamas in Gaza have earned concessions from Israel, while the peaceful efforts of Fatah in the West Bank are rewarded with more settlements.

    It seems to me vital that Israel and all who care for her carefully distinguish between Fatah and Hamas and seek to incentivise and reward the peaceful efforts of former and discourage the non-peaceful efforts of the later.

    Of course, the remarks by Labour members that you cite are disturbing and ill-considered. But, as well as condemning these remarks, I feel that Labour friendship of Israel should also extend to encouraging Israel to re-engage constructively with those Palestinians who really do wish to take forward peaceful efforts.

    Best, Jonathan

  2. Ex-Labour says:

    You forgot to mention Labours very own looney left teenage trot Owen Jones on Question Time who did indeed engage in ” infantile football-terrace chanting of “my side’s right, your side’s wrong” as you point out.

    His arguemnt was “they started it” (Israel) and listed the Palastinian casualties – cue appluase all round from a mainly left wing audience (surely not within the BBC I hear you gasp).

    I’m no fan of Israel and its an extremely complex problem but those who read the headlines but not the detail need to do so before engaging in any debate on either side.

  3. Loftus Road says:

    Good article. One reason why i have left the left, so to speak, is because it accommodates people like Andy Slaughter, George Galloway and Jeremy Slaughter so happily.

  4. @Jonathan: Perhaps the “peaceful efforts” citied by the Palestinian Mission UK refer to those of Fatah in the West Bank?’

    That may be the case, but even if so it is convenient sophistry. The issue in question is the conflict between Hamas and Israel. One cannot talk about “peaceful efforts” by Palestinians and conveniently forget the fact that rockets are raining on southern Israel. I am sure they deliberately did not make it clear so as to show solidarity with Hamas. But they cannot have it both ways. It is also important to note that Fatah are hardly innocent in this case – they were explicitly supporting the Hamas action, even if they did not personally take part.

    I agree with you about the inversion of incentives with Israel. It’s not encouraging, is it? The settlements issue (as I have written elsewhere) is the most counter-productive stupidity one can imagine Israel engaging in. But that’s Likud for you.

    I think we agree that Labour should be a critical friend to Israel rather than a cheerleader. My point is – as I hope the article makes clear – a comment against extremist views and lack of balance within Labour, rather than a taking sides.

    What Labour needs are reasonable people who will be advocates for Palestine, and I’m struggling to find them. The Palestinian cause within Labour has become too close to the dreadful Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which is sadly putting off sensible people taking it up.

  5. @Ex-Labour: ah, well if you want to see some more examples, you might try the comments section here: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2012/10/labour-venezuela-and-the-strange-tale-of-official-observation/ – myself and Jones debating why on earth he is in Caracas as a pro-Chavez observer.

    @Loftus Road: Jeremy Slaughter? I’ll take that as a typo. I think…

  6. swatantra says:

    In the long run everybody knows there is no future for Israel. But nobody has the guts to admit it.
    So a 2 State solution is no longer a realistic answer for either side.
    Only a one State All Inclusive Palestine will do.
    Britains role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and an Inclusive Govt composed of Parties diametrically opposed to each other, politically and religiously, and yet working together, should be an example to the world that co-habitation can work and must work.

  7. Robert says:

    I agree Swatantra. Israel has made a two state solution impossible through building settlements, so one state for Jews and Palestinians is the only viable solution in the long term. Unfortunately, a lot of people are going to die on both sides before that happens.

  8. @Swatantra/Robert: interesting viewpoint, which I’m not sure I agree with. My view would be that the settlement-building simply has to stop and that there will be a two-state solution one day. But heaven knows when this will happen, and all the issues on either side will be sorted out. I suspect a one-state solution would not be that – it would just be the obliteration of Israel, which is ultimately what Hamas want (in fact, I believe it’s in their charter, as well as their logo).

    More worrying is the Iranian question: I suspect that, whether the West likes it or not, it will end up being forced into some kind of military action before long, if only to prevent a local nuclear war.

  9. Wee Jock McSporran says:

    Someone called “Yasmin Qureshi” is anti-Israeli. Does that really surprise anyone over the age of 12?

    Jeez!

  10. Les Abbey says:

    I think we agree that Labour should be a critical friend to Israel…

    I do agree, but this is a friend of Israel as a nation, not a friend of the government of Israel or some Likud coalition made up of all the Greater Israel crazies.

    In fact we should also be able to say we friends of the Palestinian nation while not a friend of Hamas and the religious crazies on that side.

    I still hope there is a two state solution, but it’s hard to see it happening with the present Israeli government who have done their best, it seems, to put such a solution on the back-burner. What would help is when people criticize the said government and despair over the the Israeli government’s harsh response with all the civilian casualties and collateral damage that involves, a concerted attack is made on them by others that seem more aligned with the Israeli embassy than any British political party. (And yes, the same could be said of the pro-Hamas lobby.)

  11. Rob,

    Thank you.

    I suppose I am just not surprised – though, of course, we should be disappointed and we should condemn – that the party has these dark places.

    I also feel that the existence of these places pushes those in the party who are more sympathetic to Israel into a defensive position, where they are doing little more than defending Israel’s right to exist and to live in peace.

    The summation of these dark places and such defences of Israel mean that the contribution of the party as a whole is not as constructive as it might be.

    I do not overstate the ability of our party to really influence any of this but we should be consistently emphasising the core point that, ultimately, military means cannot solve a political problem.

    The drift ever further from talks and political solutions is worrying. Hopefully, our sister party in Israel can improve upon the current situation. I also continue to feel that Fatah are those to whom those Israelis who seek peaceful, political solutions should look.

    Peter Beinart has recently written:

    “Abbas and Fayyad—remember them?—have bet their careers on the proposition that security cooperation with Israel and public recognition of Israel’s right to exist are more likely to bring their people dignity and justice than are Hamas’s rockets.”

    We should encourage and support those on both sides who want to act in the spirit described by Beinart, which should be a point around which the Labour Party can unite on this most sadly divisive of issues.

    Best, Jonathan

  12. Dan McCurry says:

    I spent 6 months of my youth in Israel, on Kibbutz Yagur, near Haifa, which is in the north.
    One bomb shelter was our disco for Friday nights. Another contained a weights gym. Another had just a piano in it. People could practice without disturbing others.
    This was 1986, a year before the 1st intifada. I doubt if they are being used for discos and bomb shelters these days.
    Rob tries to answer why Israeli casualties are so low. It’s because the population in the south of the country live underground.

  13. @Les: I think you’re quite right – we should be a friend to the people, not the government. As I wrote at LabourList last week, there’s a big difference between Hamas and the people of Gaza, and we on the left need to remember that.

    @Jonathan: I think that’s a pretty good summing-up. Problem is for Fatah (as the SDLP once found) is that sometimes being reasonable does not necessarily win you support. But yes, Labour needs a whole new approach to this policy area, our current one is quite incoherent. The nutters must be marginalised.

    STOP PRESS: Israel announces new settlements program in response to UN recognition of Palestine. Just shows that it is as wrong to blindly defend Israel as it is to blindly support Palestine. Rank stupidity by Netanyahu, as far as I can see.

  14. Mike Homfray says:

    Pleased to see Labour move further away from uncritical support for the Israeli government – under a Jewish-origin leader of the party.

    Israel have announced they are building yet more settlements in areas they have no right to be in. This country has lost any moral right to continue to exist in its present state. Quite what the alternative will be is anyone’s guess.

  15. Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce that, after somewhat obsessively mentioning Israel in the comments section of practically every post I’ve ever written, Mike Homfray has finally mentioned it in one which is…about Israel!

    Well done, Mike. I knew it was just a matter of time.

  16. Steve Dowle says:

    The Israeli and the Palestianian protagonists cannot be treated equally. The facts on the ground give the Israelies enormous advantage as does the support they receive from powerful states and groups in the West. By there behaviour and blatant disregard for UN Resolutions, their crimes against humanity (from the ethnic cleansing of 1948 to Sabra and Shatila and on to the present day), the Israelies have put themselves beyond civilised company. They are criminals.

    And the response to all who critise is that you must be an anti-semite. That the terrible treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust justifies what they do today. Well it doesn’t. All kinds of groups have suffered in the past, but we must move on. The Isrealies are like so many in Ireland, stuck in the past.

  17. swatantra says:

    Talking of spats, there was one almighty spat between Friends of Thomas and Friends of Hetty on Facebook a couple of days ago; my email inbox was choking with 160+ comments; yes I read through everyone of them before deleting them. Emotions ran high. It seems to me that the root of the problem lies with ‘affiliates’ putting their oar in and stirring things up. A lot of that also goes on in the LP. Why not leave it to just the actual members of an organisation to choose and elect. OMOV. Its called democracy.
    Which takes me back to the ME conflicts. Its not a level playing field with one side recieving tons of military hardware and bushels of money, and the other side … well just liviing on aid and handouts. Maybe it would make sense for outsiders to just stay outside.

  18. Alasdair Campbell says:

    Some of your statistics are misleading..

    “Defenceless, that is, except for the 1,506 not-really-lethal Fadjr-5s”.

    Where is the evidence that the majority of the 1500 rocket launches from Gaza were Fajr-5s? Are they not far more likely to be the shorter-range, lower payload, less accurate and most definitely ‘home made’ Qassams rockets? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qassam_rocket

    “As for not being lethal, this beggars belief. The reason for the low Israeli casualties is self-evidently its anti-missile protection system and the large number landing in open ground (together accounting for over 80% of the rockets)”.

    Just to help qualify this 80% statistic, from clicking the link here we find that 93% of rockets fired would have failed to hit populated areas (‘Hamas’ accuracy with regards to hitting populated areas within Israel remained below 7%’). Does that not match up quite accurately with with the term ‘ramshackle’?

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