Johnson and Starmer are failing Palestinians

Johnson and Starmer are failing Palestinians
5 min read
18 May, 2021
Opinion: UK politicians on both sides of the aisle are offering empty rhetoric, and failing to stand up for Palestinians where it counts, writes Malia Bouattia.
Protesters gathered in solidarity with the people of Palestine on May 16, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. [Getty]

The recent attacks on Gaza, the violent forced expulsions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the marauding mobs shouting "death to the Arabs" all serve as vivid reminders  - along with this week's anniversary of the Nakba - that the colonial catastrophe Israel imposes on Palestinians is far from over.

At the time of writing, assaults by Israeli forces have claimed over 200 lives, including 58 children. Airstrikes launched daily since last Monday have injured over 1,200 people in Gaza.

On Saturday, Israel's air force demolished an entire 13-storey building housing Al Jazeera and AP News, giving barely an hour's notice. Similar actions have destroyed residential buildings throughout Gaza, as well as refugee camps and hospital access roads.

Each day, the death toll rises, the stories of destruction and trauma mount, and western leaders continue to fail in their response to Israel's terror over the Palestinians.

Boris Johnson remained silent after the targeting of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, only speaking after dozens were killed in Gaza, unhelpfully calling for both sides involved to "step back from the brink," claiming he was "deeply concerned." 

"Each day, the death toll rises, the stories of destruction and trauma mount, and western leaders continue to fail in their response to Israel's terror over the Palestinians"

The PM and the British political establishment whitewash the main issue, namely, that Israel is a colonial occupier unleashing advanced military power against Palestinian civilians. Language that obfuscates this fact presents a narrative that Palestinians are on an equal footing with Israel, creating an image of warring states instead of an ongoing struggle between the colonisers and the colonised.

Furthermore, with empty calls for "de-escalation," Johnson fails to acknowledge his own responsibility and that of the entire British government in facilitating this state of affairs by arming Israel as it continues to violate international law and the human rights of Palestinians.

Since 2015, the UK has licensed over £400m ($570m) in arms sales to Israel, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade. In addition to this, there are no restrictions on "end use" applied by the UK government on military goods exported to Israel.

When it comes to the British state, Israel is treated as above the law. Lest we forget, just a few weeks ago, Johnson condemned the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories. It is, in Johnson's view, inappropriate to even inquire into the question. Undoubtedly because he, and the rest of the world, knows very well what such an investigation would find.

Sadly, the leader of the opposition doesn't offer much better. Labour's Keir Starmer tweeted, "The violence against worshippers during Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque was shocking. Israel must respect international law, and must take steps, immediately, to work with Palestinian leaders to de-escalate tensions."

On the surface such comments do not seem harmful, especially considering the backlash he received from pro-Israel news outlets Jewish News and The Jewish Chronicle. But his tweet must be understood in the context of concession after concession made to the Israel lobby, and the suspension or alienation of countless pro-Palestine activists from the Labour party, including Jeremy Corbyn. 

Starmer decided not to attend an iftar during Ramadan because the co-founder of the project had shown support for boycotting Israeli dates. He has also repeatedly ignored the concerns voiced by Palestinians within his own party.

In this context, Starmer's mealy-mouthed tweet amounts to little more than hollow talk. 

Given that Starmer previously worked as a human rights lawyer, he should know better than most about the extent of the atrocities committed by Israel, the human rights violations, and the war crimes perpetrated against Palestinians. 

"In this context, Starmer's mealy-mouthed tweet amounts to little more than hollow talk"

Holding Israel to account for its settler colonial policies requires sanctions such as those demanded by the BDS movement, vilified by Starmer - not vague tweets.

What’s worse, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, who holds the position of Chair for the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, has only reinforced the weak position of the current party leadership. A self-proclaimed Zionist, Nandy condemned "both sides" over the recent attacks.

If the Labour Party is indeed what it claims to be, it would be organising trade unions across the country to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign and would call on its affiliates, which include Britain's largest trade unions, to take action in support of Palestinian strikers. There is so much the labour movement can do.

The recent demonstrations in the UK, which have loudly and confidently opposed the announced expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah, the brutality used by Israeli police in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the violence meted out against Palestinians citizens of the state, and the ongoing attacks in Gaza, have demonstrated that the Palestine solidarity movement neither expects nor requires political parties to take action. 

In London alone, over 150,000 marched against Israel's actions last weekend. This is all the more impressive and inspiring in the context of years of pushback against pro-Palestine groups, activists, and sentiment.

For too many years, the witch-hunt against pro-Palestine voices and the curtailing of civil liberties through counter-extremism policies like Prevent, which has specifically targeted Palestine solidarity efforts, have made many feel isolated and defeated. 

The strong show of outrage and solidarity in cities across the UK demonstrates that the aggressive Israel lobby might have frightened many, but it has not made a dent in the strength of feeling regarding the Palestinian struggle for liberation and return. Palestinians are fighting back everywhere - across historic Palestine and the diaspora - and so should we.


Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.