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THIS month marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Nakba — the brutal driving out of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and the ongoing catastrophe of violence, repression and discrimination that has followed it.
Over five hundred villages were destroyed in that first push to force Palestinians out. But Nakba is a continuing process, not a one-off event. The years since have seen the constant expansion of settlements recognised as illegal by the United Nations, the murder of thousands of civilians — almost a hundred so far this year — and the systematic destruction of the economy and life chances of Palestinians.
The right of Palestinians to return to their homes is enshrined in international law and is a fundamental human right, one that any civilised nation should support and demand.
Instead, because war always involves propaganda, the Palestinians have suffered the added indignity of a campaign of lies to discredit them. Palestine before the occupation is misdescribed as a desert and the very existence of Palestine as an entity in the first place is dismissed. Some supporters of the oppression even claim — in all seriousness — that the Palestinians left voluntarily.
When the media is brave enough to expose what is happening, journalists are often in grave danger as they try to report on real events. This week also marks the first anniversary since the brutal and intentional murder of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. No-one has been brought to justice, and her death with impunity marks a new low under the Israeli government’s extremist regime, which states that they will not bring charges against anyone responsible for her deliberate targeting and death. Al Jazeera has rightly called on the International Criminal Justice Court to intervene.
The discrimination goes further than violence and propaganda, with the civil and human rights of Palestinians stripped by a regime that has become even more extremist and bigoted in its latest form and is treating Palestinians not even as second-class citizens but not citizens at all — and not even really human.
The correct British response to this oppression and the lies would be sanctions for the oppressors and constant pressure to finally achieve justice for the oppressed.
Instead, supporters of Palestinian human rights had to go to the Supreme Court last year to fight a government ban on local councils boycotting goods, services and investments linked to Israel’s illegal settlements.
And in March this year, as the 75th anniversary of the Nakba drew closer, the British government rolled out the red carpet for Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, the perpetrator and propagator of many of the crimes against Palestinians, in a visit designed to strengthen and extend ties between Britain and Israel, in a new “partnership deal.”
When governments will not do the right thing, ordinary people have no choice but to act.
In Leicestershire this month, Palestine Action, with significant support from local people and daily co-ordination efforts on direct messaging systems, has begun a “siege” of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems. The group admits that the aim of the siege is simple but extensive: to drive Elbit out of Britain.
The protest has been entirely peaceful, yet police have made indiscriminate arrests, confiscated equipment and even had officers in another jurisdiction arrest the founders of Palestine Action, including British Palestinian woman Huda Ammori.
Support amongst Leicester’s local community for the action has been huge, with many from my constituency of Leicester East participating, from assistance in organising to replacing what was lost when police forcibly removed the protesters’ tents, stoves and other equipment. Leicester people clearly understand not just the evils the company represents but the centrality of the right of peaceful protest to a functioning democracy.
Elbit’s presence in Britain is a stark symbol of oppression and the international collusion of governments that enables it to exist.
The issue of Elbit in Britain is a human rights and humanitarian issue and our government’s determination to accommodate and protect the company — and award it huge contracts — is a symptom of the growing issues with human rights and respect for international law as Britain moves closer to becoming a rogue authoritarian state.
The UN’s human rights organisation has called for a boycott of Elbit and similar firms and earlier this year the UN condemned killings of Palestinian civilians by Israeli Defence Forces in incidents that would certainly have involved Elbit weapons.
Drones and other weapons manufactured by the company have also been used to attack civilians in Yemen and elsewhere — the company even uses the vast number of hours flown in these places as part of its selling pitch.
And Elbit does more than make hardware. The company provided personnel, as well as weapons, for Israel's 11-day assault on Gaza in May 2021 that left 248 people dead, including 66 children and hundreds more injured.
Elbit spyware is known to have been used to spy on Ethiopian dissidents here, as well as in the US and elsewhere, while Britain uses its hardware and software over the Channel against refugees fleeing war, persecution and climate disaster.
This is a moral and legal issue, but our government consistently sides with the oppressors, whether governments or corporations and is determined to criminalise all kinds of civil protest, pursuing Palestine Action protesters, as well as climate change protesters and others trying to save human lives and protect human rights.
The government is even trying to criminalise protest in general, with heavy prison sentences — and it is doing this because these protests are effective.
Palestine Action’s protests against Elbit have already seen the company close its Oldham facility and offices in London and, reportedly, according to government sources, has lost around £300 million in Ministry of Defence contracts.
And there is a groundswell of solidarity for action against Elbit. Other groups such as Extinction Rebellion have taken or joined actions against the company in support of Palestine Action and the Palestinian people, while in 2021 Leicestershire Fire Brigades Union formerly declared that its members will refuse to help police remove protesters from the Leicester site, telling police commanders that the union stands proudly with the Palestinian people.
Such action serves a dual purpose; persistent peaceful protest helps to make Britain a no-go area for those who profit from death and oppression and to embolden ordinary people in other countries to do similarly; but it also raises awareness that builds pressure on Britain’s government to finally take the action that legality and morality demands: to end its support for the Israeli regime and to demand full recognition of and respect for Palestinian lives and human rights. Palestine should be free.
When it’s clear, as now, that governments have no intention of, or even interest in, doing the right thing despite international law and condemnation, ordinary people must act.
In the case of Palestine and the Israeli government’s oppression of the Palestinian people, the right thing is to boycott, divest and sanction companies that support and enable the illegal occupation and the murder of civilians.
The campaign to end Elbit’s presence in Britain is a central facet of this action. It’s vital that every person of goodwill gives both moral and practical support to those peacefully putting their safety and freedom on the line for the sake of justice.
In the absence of Britain government taking immediate action to end all sales of weapons that could be used unlawfully against Palestinian people, I believe direct action in the form of peaceful protest is justified.
Thus, for my part, I stand in complete solidarity with Palestine Action, other peaceful protesters and with the Palestinian people — and against both their oppression by their occupiers and the attempts of Britain government to delegitimise and criminalise those who support their right to be treated as human beings and to return to their homes.
I urge every reader to do the same, in Leicester and wherever they are needed.
Claudia Webbe is MP for Leicester East — follow her on Twitter @ClaudiaWebbe.
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