Why Palestine lights a fire under the British Arab community

Palestine Uk
6 min read
14 January, 2022
Arabs in the UK series: Suffering from Israeli apartheid and a harsh example of the wrongs of colonialism in the Middle East, Palestine is a cause that unites British Arabs like no other.

"I've been supporting the Palestinian cause for as long as I can remember," begins Yousra Samir Imran, a British-Egyptian freelance journalist.

"I have memories of being four or five years old and my father playing nasheed (Islamic songs) about Palestine in the car. From a young age, I regularly went to pro-Palestine demonstrations in London and to fundraiser events," she adds.

British Arabs like Yousra, who lives in West Yorkshire, come together around the Palestinian cause. The 33-year-old author of Hijab and Red Lipstick also said British Arabs feel collectively alike, meaning they consider Palestinians their brothers and sisters.

"We all come from countries that have been violently occupied and colonised at one point or another, and Palestine remains violently occupied until this day," she continued.

Yousra also linked the pro-Palestinian beliefs of Arabs worldwide to pan-Arabism, the movement to create one unified Arab state, which was a key political force in the Middle East from the 1950s to the 1970s. While pan-Arabism has waned, solidarity with Palestine has remained strong among Arabs globally, she added.

"We all come from countries that have been violently occupied and colonised at one point or another, and Palestine remains violently occupied until this day"

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) director Ben Jamal, 58, has been involved with the PSC for two decades. His British-Palestinian identity is partly why the issue of Palestine is important to him.

"My father was Palestinian. My grandparents and most of my extended family were expelled in '48," he said, referring to the 1948 Nakba (Arabic for "catastrophe") when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed alongside the creation of Israel.

"There's also an interesting perspective for me… I grew up with my British mother. My parents were divorced quite young, so in many ways [in] my early life, my Palestinian identity was not a fundamental daily part of who I was… Particularly as I got into my 20s, exploring those aspects of my identity became very important to me."

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But Ben had also become interested in politics by this point – an area where Palestine stands out as an example across a wide spectrum of issues.

He said: "I don’t think we have to make the argument that this is the worst example of human rights abuses in the world – it isn’t. But it's the most longstanding example of continuous military occupation. It's the longest-lasting example, I would argue, of a continuing system of apartheid.

"It is an egregious example of the complicity of the West… with a continuing systematic violation of international law that totally undermines the Western governments' declared framework of support for democracy, core freedoms, the rule of law etc."

A protest with Palestinian flags, including one reading "Palestine Solidarity Campaign"
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is a key player in the UK's pro-Palestine movement. [Image credit: Belinda Jlao/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty]. Click here to enlarge the image

Ben also pointed to the UK's role in colonialism, saying Britain's part in creating the ongoing crisis in Palestine is a key element of this legacy.

He highlighted the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which saw Britain first express its backing for the creation "in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". The UK has supported Israeli ambitions ever since.

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For Palestinian-Iraqi Briton Huda Ammori, 27, co-founder of protest group Palestine Action, growing up as a British Arab means being more aware of the UK's involvement in these sorts of issues.

She said: "I think, you know, for me and my family, it's so obvious what is happening. But then when you don't get… that care from the community around you, it can be frustrating to go through that."

British Arabs may feel they have to suppress their opinions, though Huda said this only makes passions for Palestine even stronger. For some, this resolve is strengthened further through facing racism. Huda discussed growing up mostly in Bolton, where the far-right British National Party at one point had significant popularity.

"It's not nice having to experience racism. But at the same time, it feels like nothing because you know that one of the worst forms of racism is the institutionalised forms of racism being killed or having your community destroyed," the activist said.

"So, I think then when you do experience those things, it's a reminder that actually we're so much better off than our families. You do have that privilege over Palestinians living in Palestine, or Palestinians living in the camps [across the region]."

While for many British Arabs, their connection to the Arab world is crucial to their backing for Palestine, for others, religion plays this role.

"The way I see it, there's no grey area. You've got an oppressor… and an oppressed – an aggressor and a victim. So, it's always been very clear cut. Because it is so blatantly about… right and wrong, and so blatantly about human rights, [it] is that one cause that can unite people and bring them together"

Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) spokesperson Mustafa Al-Dabbagh, 28, a British-Iraqi who moved to the UK from Iraq aged two, was clear Islam motivates his support for Palestine.

Mustafa, who said both Islam and being raised in the UK taught him to speak up for the oppressed, described Palestine as "fundamentally [a] human rights issue".

He explained: "First and foremost, to us [MAB], it is a Muslim issue because it is those Islamic values that teach us what human rights should be. Islam teaches us what international law should be, teaches us what dignified living should be."

Palestine quote

But Muslims are not the only group energised to stand up for Palestine. "Palestine, it's always been a point of unity for everyone from all walks of life – regardless of their religion, ethnicity, background," he added.

"The way I see it, there's no grey area. You've got an oppressor… and an oppressed – an aggressor and a victim. So, it's always been very clear cut. Because it is so blatantly about… right and wrong, and so blatantly about human rights, [it] is that one cause that can unite people and bring them together."

Supporting Palestine is not always easy, however, as one anti-Zionist British Jew associated with radical-left Jewish grouping Jewdas told The New Arab.

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said certain extreme Zionists in the Jewish community are the biggest barrier to pro-Palestine Jews coming out about and advocating for their views.

"I'm not just talking about like, your rabbi's a little bit… Zionist," the source said. "I'm talking about… real like essentially Jewish fascists who have been really kind of organised and focused [on] hounding left-wing and anti-Zionist Jews."

There could be real consequences for those wanting to be publicly pro-Palestine. The source alleged: "If you come out and say... 'This is my name. I am a pro-Palestinian Jew. I believe that you know, the State of Israel shouldn't exist,' [the] Jewish community's not big. They'll find out who you are. They'll contact your work. They'll contact your rabbi. They'll contact your family, and they'll try their hardest to ruin your life."

There could be real consequences for those wanting to be publicly pro-Palestine... "They'll find out who you are. They'll contact your work. They'll contact your rabbi. They'll contact your family, and they'll try their hardest to ruin your life"

Concern over this type of backlash was partly why the Jewish anti-Zionist requested anonymity. But even so, they still hold to their pro-Palestine political views.

They said: "I think the Palestinian cause is just. I think Zionism as, you know, a 120-year-old colonial project is unjust, is politically, morally, historically bankrupt. I'm against it."

In unison with the British Arab community, they added: "I want to see a liberated Palestine and a liberated Palestinian people."

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin

This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: 

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