Debating the Israel-Palestine conflict

Submitted by Matthew on 16 October, 2013 - 12:16

On Sunday 13 October, Independent Jewish Voices held a conference in London on the ongoing impasse in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

IJV was set up in 2007 as an organisation of left-wing British Jews opposed to the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. It conceives of itself as a “counter-balance” to the official communal leadership of the conservative and staunchly Zionist Board of Deputies.

The conference was held in Birkbeck, University of London, and attracted around a hundred people. The keynote speaker was Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician and politician from the relatively secular and left-wing Palestinian National Initiative. He spoke on the future prospects for peace and Palestinian self-determination, twenty years on from the Oslo accords to which he was a signatory.

Barghouti is highly critical of both the cronyism and corruption of Fatah and the fascistic Islamism of Hamas. He is also scathing about the complicity of the US and UK in the ongoing occupation and annexation of Palestinian territory by the Israeli state.

While his politics are a long distance from the revolutionary socialism of Workers’ Liberty, he is at least a fairly sincere social democrat, and his secular, critical analysis was far more lucid and humane than a lot of the rhetoric that characterises the debate around Israel-Palestine.

Before Barghouti’s address, there was a panel discussion on “forms of intervention”. The panel, which featured a mixture of British, Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists and journalists, discussed a wide range of issues from boycotts, to International Courts of Justice, to Oxford scholarships for Gazan students.

Two panellists stood out as having particularly interesting things to say. The first was Miri Weingarten, an Israeli peace activist now living in the UK. She said that she feared that co-operation and solidarity between Palestinian and Israeli activists was entering a tragic decline. She argued that this was largely due to increasing Palestinian frustration with the inconsistency of the Israeli left, and the rightward turn in Israeli popular opinion. The popular protests that erupted in Israel against the decline in living standards had the opportunity to link the working-class mass of Israelis to the question of ending the occupation, she said, but the defeat of the movement had closed off the opportunity.

I asked a question from the floor: If such a movement were to spring up again, what bearing would that have on the British left and its flirtation with the idea of boycotting Israeli academic institutions and trade unions? Would a boycott not cordon us off from a dialogue with those people? Weingarten, who is in favour of the boycott, said that it might, but added (rather elusively) that “this is a matter for British unions.”

Another interesting contribution came from Jayyab Abusafia, a Palestinian from Gaza now working as a journalist in the UK. He stressed that life in Gaza was not only being made hellish by the Israeli occupation, but by the day-to-day oppression of the Islamist Hamas government. Women, he said, were constantly forced into covering their head, though many were now beginning to rebel.

I asked what British activists could do to make solidarity with Palestinians against oppression from both Israel and Hamas. He said that the first thing to do was to speak out against human rights abuses by Hamas, and not to turn a blind eye, because “to be oppressed by your own government is just as bad as being oppressed by a foreign one.”

The British left should take this lesson on board.