4 Ways the Labour Movement Must Move Forward on Palestine
by Aliya Yule
8 October 2018
The Labour party has a long and complex history with Palestine due to Britain’s direct role as colonial power, with its troops occupying Palestine from 1917-18 to 1948. Throughout its military reign, the British empire first denied and then suppressed the Palestinian people’s demands for self-determination, whilst giving early support to the creation of an Israeli state in their land.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership marks a turning point for Labour, with recent events showing its expanded grassroots membership overwhelmingly support justice for Palestine – and will put huge pressure on Labour’s leadership in this regard. Following a protracted and ugly struggle over the summer, during which Labour’s NEC felt compelled to adopt the full IHRA definition of antisemitism despite immense pushback from the membership and real concerns about the denial of Palestinians’ inalienable rights, local constituency delegates to Labour party conference placed Palestine high on the agenda in the priority ballot to select motions for debate. When the motion was moved, thousands of Palestinian flags were held high on the conference floor in a moving display of solidarity with a struggling and disenfranchised people.
While there is clearly a gulf between Labour’s decision-making institutions and its grassroots on Palestine, the message from below was clear: no amount of pressure placed on the leadership will silence Labour members. Rather, pressure can be seen to increase members’ commitment to standing with the Palestinian people.
The challenge for members now is to embed within the party a model of international solidarity that has struggles for Palestinian liberation, self determination and return at its heart. Here are four steps we need to take to do this.
1. Re-historicise Palestine.
By re-historicising Palestine, we can explain the moral principles and historical reasons Labour members stand in solidarity with Palestinians’ struggle for justice. It also helps explain the current situation. Solidarity is attached to Palestinians’ ongoing dispossession: today’s struggle for justice relates back to the Nakba of 1947 and 1948, when two-thirds of the Palestinian people were forcibly displaced from their homes. We must always articulate this when campaigning for Palestine.
When speaking to the motion on Palestine at conference, Harlow CLP delegate Colin Monehen noted: “There are those who are nervous about the word Nakba, but the Nakba did happen […] the tragedy the Paltinian people suffered is not just some footnote in history. It is real, it goes on, until this day”.
By raising awareness of the historical event where the majority of a people were dispossessed of their country and their future destroyed, much-needed context is given to the creation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This is critical, as Donald Trump is now aiming to destroy UNRWA in order to destroy the Palestinians as a people with collective rights, including Palestinian refugees. UNRWA was set up by member states of the UN’s General Assembly in 1949, mandated to look after Palestinian refugees, until their rights are addressed. Trump’s sudden and dramatic withdrawal of funding was explicitly to destroy Palestinians’ ability to obtain their rights of self determination and return. But as Monehen reminded conference, this attempt to silence Palestinians cannot succeed: “Cutting the funding to UNRWA […] will not lessen their spirit; it will not crush their desire to return home”.
2. Restore humanity to the Palestinian people.
Part of the silencing of Palestinians today happens through ‘othering’: turning their lives and struggles into numbers and statistics. By focusing only on Israeli actions and their abusive and lethal policies, narratives around Palestine have had unhappy effect of making the Palestinians themselves – those who are being subjected to these abuses – invisible.
Restoring humanity to Palestinians requires portraying the lived reality and presence they have. Zahid Ali, when seconding the motion at conference, demonstrated how by raising a photo of Razan al-Najjar, a young Palestinian paramedic killed by an Israeli sniper whilst tending wounded protesters, during the Great March of Return earlier this year. He asked delegates to see her, declaring: “We will remember her in our hearts and in our actions”.
3. Link Palestine with wider anti-colonial struggles.
Mansoor Ayub of Wycombe CLP began his speech at conference by pointing out that the injustices the Palestinian people suffer are “injustices begun by the British empire”. Highlighting the origins of the injustice not only shows us the direct obligations we have to Palestinians – it reorients the importance of this struggle: after a century of settler-colonial practices, with Britain’s historic role in dispossessing the Palestinians (instead of protecting them) a matter of official record, a call for justice for Palestine becomes incontestable.
Britain’s role in dismantling Palestine and its forcible suppression of Palestinians’ demands for sovereignty are at the centre of campaigning for justice for Palestine. It is why we carry responsibilities to work towards the tangible enfranchisement of Palestinian rights. As Monehen explained when mentioning the Nakba: “This tragedy happened on our watch […] and for that reason we cannot close our eyes, or turn away”.
BAME, migrant and refugee communities understand the effects of a colonialism that “marginalises, discriminates, and worst of all, that silences”. Recently over 100 of representative organisations, with a shared history of oppression by colonial powers issued a remarkable statement promising to fight this silencing of the Palestinian people. The broad scope of the statement’s signatories, and the depth of feeling expressed by such a diverse range of communities, shows the importance of uniting in solidarity with those facing inequalities and injustice, seeing all our struggles as one.
4. Highlight the Palestinian emergency.
With their close alignment, Trump and Netanyahu’s attempts to impose an irredentist, extremist agenda against the Palestinian people now herald a new disaster of gigantic proportions. Their clear intention is to implement another Nakba for the Palestinian people in the coming months: annex the West Bank, expel Palestinians from Jerusalem, and disenfranchise and scatter millions of refugees by defunding the humanitarian institution created to protect them. If international protest can be silenced against such savage policies, then this tragedy will unfold in the coming months. The Palestinian people’s current predicament is extremely dangerous and extremely urgent. Strong internationalism is the one protection Palestinians have to withstand it.
Well-organised international solidarity is what can constrain this destructive and violent plan. Attempts to dismantle UNRWA; the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem in violation of international law; Trump’s closure of the PLO office – the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people – and expelling Palestinian representatives; the daily murder of civilians in the West Bank and especially Gaza, by military snipers; the escalation of war crimes – all can be halted, and must be resisted. The Israeli military’s ability to demolish homes with impunity, imprison an occupied people and kill unarmed protestors is part of a plan to disappear an entire people. In order to succeed in another Nakba they only need our silence, for us to turn away.