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Friday, 18th April 2014

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"They stole our land..."

"They stole my land, burnt my olive trees, destroyed my house, took my water, imprisoned my father, killed my mother, starved us all, humiliated us all. But I am to blame: I shot a rocket back. So they stole more of my land, burnt my olive trees, destroyed my house, took my water, bombed my country..."

These words appeared on one of the hundreds of hand-written anonymous placards carried at the 3rd January Gaza demonstration in London. In just a few sentences the complexities of Israel and Palestine are stripped bare.

Unlike South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement, when armed resistance was a relatively minor issue, Israel and Palestine are engaged in a war with necessarily ugly consequences. This can divide and narrow the solidarity movement yet the sheer scale and brutality of Israel's response to the Hamas rockets has served to galvanise and unite many who might otherwise might have had their doubts about Hamas.

The contrast that is never, ever cited on the news bulletins must surely be raised, where are the Palestinian tanks? The fighter jets? The armoured vehicles? Those rockets are the Palestinians' response to the theft of their land, jobs, water, olive trees and most calamitously of all, their lives. These are issues the movement around Palestine cannot afford to duck, or else the contradictions will return to divide us.

What is significant of the upsurge of Palestine solidarity is the understanding of this and the sheer size of the marches, vigils and rallies. But there are two other factors too which point to other important political differences with anti-apartheid.

Firstly, there is scarcely a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party who wasn't an active member of Anti-Apartheid, some in leading positions. On Palestine the Labour Party is not on the march in the same way, the inaction of Brown and Milliband on top of Iraq and Afghanistan means Labour is the target of many of the marchers' anger, not their allies. This is very different from Anti-Apartheid, and with the obvious exception of Respect MP George Galloway the voices for a free Palestine are largely outside parliamentary politics.

Secondly, for all its strengths and admirable breadth of support anti-apartheid was a predominantly white, and white led movement. It disavowed any serious engagement with the issue of racism here in order to focus instead attention on the horrors inflicted by the South African regime on their black majority.

Palestine is entirely different. The core of the movement are Muslim communities which have been radicalised and mobilised first by Iraq but for whom Palestine is an absolutely central factir in defining their political identity. The Stop the War coalition made some important advances in recognising the centrality of Muslim communities to their campaign but in many ways it remained a traditional leftist campaign in terms of structure, culture and campaigns.  Palestine demands a much more far-reaching change, to evolve a campaign that is extra-parliamentary, broad yet led and framed by the Muslim community.

The huge early January demonstrations proved the enormous potential for such a movement, as inevitably Gaza moves down the news bulletins after Israel's announcement of its so-called 'unilateral ceasefire' how might this movement maintain its depth and breadth of support.  

Isolating Israel in the form of consumer-led boycott will be one tactic. But the movement must not lose its very strong localism. What was remarkable about January was the largely ad-hoc response in places like Blackburn, Preston, Bury, Worcester, Swindon alongside larger protests in Manchester and Birmingham as well as the set-piece London demos. This needs to be facilitated rather than reduced to one big London march after another.

The second is building the moral argument against Israel's actions. Israel thrives on two crucial elements of support. The first US military aid. The second is a groundswell of sympathy because of the very particular circumstances in which it was founded in 1948.  A movement that will not compromise with anti-semitism and pinpoints the contradiction that survival of the holocaust is being used to justify war crimes in Gaza deprives Israel of its most potent cause for support outside of the ranks of the politically committed.

If a movement can emerge after the 'ceasefire' to  popularise this argument it will leave Israel and its supporters increasingly isolated, deprived of its most likely sympathisers. The consumer boycott will aid this but it is the isolation of Israel's military campaign as morally unjustifiable that will most effectively force change. 




The Palestine 09 T-shirt design by Hugh Tisdale is JUST £16.99! Helping to raise funds for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Available from