Palestine: a new phase for solidarity
by Brian Durrans
Looking back on the boycott campaign which helped win independence from the British Raj, Mahatma Gandhi reportedly outlined the following stages in the struggle: first (he said) they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you – and then you win! Both the Indian and South African freedom struggles, in the first and second halves of the last century, inform the way the Palestinians conduct their own movement for self-determination. Today - in conditions where Israel is the settler-colonial power – it has such overwhelming military superiority that colonised Palestine, with a sadly divided leadership, depends on a varying mix of armed and civil resistance and (even more than was the case in South Africa or India, when the liberation movements could count on support from the socialist countries), on international solidarity mainly from civil society and its organisations.
In this article I review the context and consequences of Palestinian resistance which hit the headlines in the last three months of 2015 and relate this to the Cameron government’s and Israel supporter’s current attack and increasingly reckless attacks on the pro-Palestinian solidarity movement.
Facts on the ground
Successive Israeli governments refer to the metastasizing illegal Settlements or colonies in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘facts on the ground’, signalling that they cannot now be wished out of existence. But Palestinian resistance is also a fact on the ground and cannot be wished away, either.
The mainstream media consistently under-report how, day-by-day and night-by-night, the Israeli state kills, injures, imprisons, tortures and intimidates Palestinian men, women and children, demolishes the homes from which they are evicted, uproots their olive trees, cuts them off from their smallholdings and ethnically cleanses them from their colonised land. As Israel’s government and state institutions not only help fund and side with Settler extremists but come increasingly under their direct control, so the colonists themselves are emboldened to terrorise their Palestinian neighbours on their own, officially-tolerated or encouraged, initiative.
That Israel’s systematic repression of Palestinians is getting worse is increasingly evident to fair-minded visitors to the West Bank, to the far fewer who make it these days into besieged Gaza, and to the increasing numbers who find in the weekly reports of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and from other well-researched sources, what the leading media won’t say.  To Palestinians, however, it is all too familiar.
The resistance will never die
Without this background knowledge, anyone might have been as surprised or appalled as were most propaganda-fed Israeli Jews themselves by the surge, from early October 2015, of actual, knife attempted and alleged knife attacks, by individual Palestinian citizens of Israel largely on civilian Jewish Israelis within Israel itself and in occupied East Jerusalem. Here at least was ‘news’, featuring mainly young, mainly male ‘terrorists’ from whom the security forces were embarrassingly unable to defend ordinary (apartheid) law-abiding Jewish citizens. Not only were the perpetrators, or aspiring or alleged perpetrators, routinely killed rather than arrested and put on trial (shooting to kill when there is no ‘security’ justification for it has become standard practice towards the resistance movement), but two new policies were applied to collectively dehumanise Palestinians and their communities: in yet another breach of the Geneva Conventions, the bodies of slain Palestinians were withheld from their relatives and in addition to losing his life a combatant’s family’s home would be destroyed. The real story here was that whether or not it escalated into a full-scale intifada (uprising), the increasing violence towards Israeli targets showed beyond doubt both that the spirit of Palestinian resistance cannot be quenched, and that this was as true for where the attacks were now taking place, within 1948 Israel and in Jerusalem, as in the West Bank and Gaza, in which and from which attacks are more routine. In the vanguard of this latest resistance are young Palestinians with most to gain from freedom and justice.
The message to Israeli Jews who have voted consistently for increasingly right-wing and virulently racist governments in Tel Aviv, is that if this is no way to bring security or justice to Palestinians (which evidently does not concern them), neither can it bring security to themselves. The UK and Western media version of the ‘knife attacks’ almost completely ignored the repression to which they were an inadequate response and was thus able to portray Israel as the innocent victim. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time in claiming Palestinians are a terrorist problem for Israel just as pro-ISIS attacks in Paris were for France.
The liberation movement is not yet strong enough to make Israeli apartheid untenable in practice. But this ‘tipping point’ is getting closer. Despite a disunited leadership, the Palestinians themselves remain resilient. There is no evidence that the acts of resistance in the last quarter of 2015 were planned or co-ordinated by any particular faction but a comprehensive opinion poll of Palestinians has shown two-thirds of those asked were in favour of the attacks by Palestinian militants and of intensifying them.  Israel would prefer the world to overlook and forget about the occupation, settlements, detentions, ethnic cleansing and the other everyday realities of the apartheid system which defy official excuses and deflections the more people are confronted with them.
Acknowledging that the Palestinian struggle is conducted on the world stage, Israel is obliged not only to attack those who resist its oppression on the ground, where the stakes and risks are highest, but also to attack those everywhere else who support the Palestinian citizens of Israel, in the Occupied Territories, and in the far-flung diaspora. To do this, Israel needs (and has a ready supply of) allies, primarily the US but also Britain. Even so, as the Reut Institute (an influential Israeli think tank) claimed a few years ago, people in Britain have come to play a leading role in the global solidarity movement for Palestine.
Partners in crime
On Valentine’s Day 2016 the UK Government showered the apartheid state with rose petals by announcing its intention of prohibiting public bodies from using procurement and investment policies to express a point of view of the behaviour of corporations or states. In a visit to the country in mid-February, Conservative Cabinet minister Matthew Hancock personally assured the Israeli Prime Minister that the measures the UK Government is taking (‘secondary legislation’, that is, not requiring a parliamentary vote) to curtail the democratic rights and freedoms of British citizens are intended to help its foreign ally. The Government also asserts the right to overrule ethically-guided decisions by representatives of local authorities as to how their staff pension funds are invested.
The Government’s argument is dangerously disingenuous. It asserts that as a matter relevant only to foreign policy, a boycott or sanctions directly or indirectly against a foreign government or state can be imposed by central government alone. Public bodies like local councils, and possibly students’ unions and church pension funds as well, are threatened with punitive fines if in their procurement of goods and services they apply ethical principles to uphold international and humanitarian law – and seek to express the views of those who elect them – by disqualifying or refusing contracts to companies which are complicit with breaches in those laws. Yet it had missed the point that it is not a company’s nationality but its conduct under international law which may disqualify it from tenders under existing procurement legislation; at present it remains unclear whether the new legislation will alter this. The issue here goes well beyond Palestinian rights to cover a range of other concerns, such as (and which the Government explicitly says it wants to protect), the UK arms trade and the tobacco industry. It also involves a restriction of democratic rights. In early March 2016, shortly after the Government’s ‘secondary legislation’ proposals were announced, Foreign Office Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed that the FCO still advises UK companies not to get involved in Israeli-occupied Palestine because of the legal risks of doing so.
The Government’s new bullying guidelines on public bodies procurement are intended to intimidate local authorities without taking the time and trouble to overhaul the legislation and running the risk of being defeated in a proper vote.
Yet by singling out pro-Palestine activism by public bodies as a threat to ‘community cohesion’, the Government capitulates to the racist equation of Jewishness to Zionism, and thus to the abhorrent assertion that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Taking his cue from the Netanyahu government itself, Cameron’s immediate target here is the spearhead of the solidarity movement, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign. BDS has made great strides worldwide since it began in 2005. Only a few months ago, after persistent and principled lobbying of local authorities in the UK and elsewhere, the French-owned waste-disposal, water and transport multinational Veolia was forced to withdraw completely from the illegal Occupation of the West Bank. In the first week of March 2016, Anglo-Dutch security giant G4S, which helps Israel run its prisons and checkpoints, announced its intention of ending its business in Israel following similar pressure from BDS campaigners. Add to this that the new leader of the Labour Party – Jeremy Corbyn – has long been a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and that in January this year Human Rights Watch – hitherto not the best friend to Palestine – has called for an end to all business links with the illegal settlements, and you can almost hear the alarm bells ringing for Israel apologists. Along with the UK Government’s attempt to intimidate public bodies from showing solidarity with the Palestinian people, it is also co-ordinating with the pro-Israel lobby to smear the Labour leader and the party’s left-wing with unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism.
As the call for BDS made clear, people across the world have a responsibility to uphold international law even, or especially, when their own governments fail to do so. Building alliances would also be an essential part of developing the struggle, and, as Gandhi might have predicted, the more this can be done the more irresistible the movement becomes. Unable to admit that the BDS movement is gaining strength, the Conservative government finds itself ill-advisedly threatening democracy itself. There are four main reasons why this attempt to demonise and roll back Palestinian solidarity is unlikely to work and betrays the desperation of its authors:
- First, it creates natural allies out of all the causes it attacks, not just that of Palestine: such as concerning health, the environment, the arms trade and local democracy.
- Second, the measures announced are glaringly at odds with the Foreign Office’s recently-confirmed warning to UK companies not to trade with illegal Israeli settlements.
- Third, trying to intimidate local bodies from taking ethical decisions in investment and procurement retrospectively questions this form of support given in the 1980s to the struggle for freedom in South Africa, earlier in Vietnam and well before that in Republican Spain. So a UK establishment which still pretends, against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it supported Nelson Mandela is now prepared to outlaw the very kind of solidarity which helped bring South African apartheid to an end. Mandela himself, who Margaret Thatcher and the younger David Cameron called a “terrorist”, is on record as proclaiming that South Africa’s freedom is incomplete without that of Palestine’s.
- Fourth, if building alliances to develop the work of the international solidarity movement is one of the thoughtful recommendations of the original Palestinian call for BDS in 2005, another is to publicise the case for freedom and justice. The furore which the government’s proposals have aroused, well beyond Palestinians activism, is helping just that.
By taking pro-Israel advice, the government will score not just one but four own goals, provided this attack on how public bodies conduct their business and represent those who elect them is countered by united action. Behind the government’s ill-considered measures is a sense that Israel and its friends are desperate to halt the advance of BDS but unsure how to do so. They are losing the initiative.
Hugh Lanning, Chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, remarks: “As if it is not enough that the UK Government has failed to act when the Israeli Government has bombed and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and stolen their homes and land, the Government are now trying to impose their inaction on all other democratic and public bodies.”
Sara Apps, interim Director of Palestine Solidarity adds: “People around the world have been asked by the Palestinian people to support boycott, divestment and sanctions because it is a peaceful and effective way to challenge and pressure the Israeli Government to end their violations.” 
An exceptional resource for further action is the debate on this issue which took place in Westminster around a motion proposed by Labour MP Richard Burden on Tuesday 15 April 2016 
Class politics, home and away
While it’s important to recognise that to be attacked in these ways by the world’s leading pariah state and its apologists is a badge of honour, the stakes are high and so are the risks. Late last year, the Co-operative Bank closed the accounts of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and of a number of its constituent branches, which might be connected to the recent extraordinary revelation that the PSC appears on a covert blacklist of ‘terrorist’ organisations supplied to appropriate clients by Thomson-Reuters.  the target this time may not be Communists but the method is plainly McCarthyite. The Solidarity movement is not about to be intimidated, however. And because of how the Conservative government in Westminster is trying to help its Israeli ally, campaigning for BDS teaches those involved not only about the struggle in Palestine but also about the British ruling class.
 See, for example, http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/press_release_170_palestinians_and_26_israelis_killed_in_2015_english.pdf, accessed 3 March 2016.
 As reported in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in mid-December 2015: http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/623, accessed 2 March 2016
 As reported by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in mid-December 2015: http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/623, accessed 2 March 2016.
 http://www.palestinecampaign.org/attack-on-democracy/, accessed 2 March 2016.
 http://www.palestinecampaign.org/psc-worldcheck-statement/, accessed 3 March 2016.
BDS has made great strides world-wide since its launch in 2005.
"...by singling out pro-Palestine activism by public bodies as a threat to 'community cohesion', the Tory Government is colluding with the racist equation of Jewishness to Zionism, and thus to the abhorrent assertion that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic."