As the wreath scandal rolls into a fourth day of rolling news coverage, one would be forgiven for thinking that the prime antagonism in the Israel-Palestine conflict is actually between Jeremy Corbyn and his detractors. The volume of column inches generated by this story is in inverse proportion to its clarity. In 2014 at the invitation of veteran human rights campaigner and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, Jeremy Corbyn laid a wreath to commemorate the scores of victims killed in the 1985 bombing of PLO headquarters, at a memorial nearby were the graves of 3 men alleged to have links to Black September, the group behind the 1972 kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. Corbyn has denied laying wreaths at their graves.
Allies of the Labour leader have highlighted the disparity between the opprobrium directed at Corbyn, and the deafening sound of crickets which greeted Jack Straw’s visit to Yasser Arafat’s grave; in return some have accused Corbyn supporters of perpetuating a cult mentality.
It is a gross indictment of the British commentariat that the Israel-Palestine conflict is treated as a mere proxy for the political divisions in Westminster politics. Despite this month’s renewed bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces, and the deaths of at least 161 Palestinian border protesters and one Israeli soldier since March of this year, none of the major political debate shows have thought it prudent to include Palestinian activists in discussions of Corbyn’s expressions of affinity with their cause. This is not just poor journalistic practice: the erasure of Palestinian voices in narrating their own history is itself in concurrence with the Israeli state’s strategy to delegitimise Palestinian struggle for self-determination in all its forms.
Let me be clear: if holding progressive values is to be worth a damn, the protection of all civilian life, including in Israel, must be at the forefront of our political demands at all times. This does not however mean that we resort to the lazy universalism which presumes that a conflict between a nation-state with a defence budget of $18.6 billion and a politically, geographically and militarily fragmented people who’ve been under occupation for the past 70 years is a conflict of equals.
According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, 3183 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces between 19 January 2009 and 30 April 2018. In the same time period, 53 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians. The symmetrical application of condemnation in the face of such disparity is not a morally coherent position – especially when Britain has sold $445 million worth of arms to Israel since 2014.
The Guardian writer Hadley Freeman tweeted that if you want to “take a side” in the Israel-Palestine conflict that “it does not then follow that you will hang out with terrorists... Supporting terrorists should not be normalised.”
This seems like another one of those common sense positions that everyone can get behind – that is, until the pesky matter of studying the political context at hand gets in the way. Israeli law allows for children as young as 12 to be jailed as terrorists; between 500 and 700 Palestinian children are tried by Israeli courts every year.
Despite the modern Israeli state partially owing its establishment to acts of terrorism, including the Deir Yassin massacre and the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel (planned in part by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin) we do not consider this grounds to exclude their participation in peace processes. Indeed such a position would be ridiculous – if not between combatants, who are you brokering peace between?
But such political positions are not intended to make sense. They’re meant to impose a veneer of morality over uneven distributions of power: to always exclude those deemed to be terrorists from the terrain of political discourse is to automatically privilege state actors’ rights to enact violence over the people that violence is enacted on.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that the military asymmetry of the Israel-Palestine conflict is matched in the media. Language itself is a battlefield. Just this week the BBC was pressured by the Board of Deputies to change its headline reporting Palestinian deaths in Gaza from ““Israeli air strikes ‘kill woman and toddler’” to “Gaza airstrikes ‘kill woman and child’ after rockets hit Israel”.
In tweaking just a few words, the culpability of Israeli security forces for civilians’ deaths is erased; Palestinians being held collectively responsible for rocket fire is presented as an ethically legitimate position; and readers’ sympathy is tempered as a toddler is transformed into a less emotionally evocative “child”.
Our political media is complicit at every level in silencing Palestinians in their struggle for survival and self-determination. The past week has shown that the stakes are much higher than a tussle over Jeremy Corbyn’s personal morality: the fundamental issue is about our right to stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples in highly asymmetric conflicts.
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