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Gaza: what did you do in the war?

As the slaughter in Palestine continues and the solidarity movement’s calls for accountability and a shift in international policy grow, political leaders must realise they face a reckoning for their silence, writes HUGH LANNING

“IT is exhausting living in a population where people don’t speak up if what they witness doesn’t directly threaten them.” So said the US painter and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz when Western governments were told that “silence = death” during that epidemic.

And just as the Western world was rightly charged with remaining silent during the Holocaust, Israel’s war on Gaza will haunt today’s generation of political leaders in Britain and across the globe.

They will be judged by what they did and didn’t do: failure to call for an immediate ceasefire, continuing to supply arms and supporting the industrial carnage in Gaza in the name of self-defence.

Supporters of Palestine, the solidarity movement and political organisations are likewise going to be judged — not only on their amazing response but on how we organise to take support for Palestine to another level that will apply continuing and ever-growing pressure on world governments until Palestine has its right to freedom and self-determination upheld.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have lost their lives; many more will die. We cannot allow that generational sacrifice to be in vain. We must ensure that Israel is made to feel that it can never again act with international impunity.

We know that international law was a Western creation seeking to impose its version of civilisation and, from the beginning, was hierarchical and discriminatory — an instrument of US power.

As Perry Anderson wrote in New Left Review: “Wars waged by the ‘liberal’ powers dominating the system were selfless police actions upholding international law. Wars waged by anyone else were criminal enterprises violating international law.”

Since its creation by the UN in 1948 — recognised by the US within 11 minutes — Israel has been included in the “do as I say, not as I do” club. Not before time there are signs that this moral hegemony Israel has held over the West is beginning to weaken.

In his outstanding London Review of Books lecture, Indian socialist Pankaj Mishra identifies very accurately a “West v the rest” split, describing most of the world as not understanding why Palestinians should be dispossessed and punished for crimes in which only Europeans were complicit.

Challenging the Darwinian notion of the survival of one group of people at the expense of another, he quotes the late Israeli dissident Tony Judt who argues that the Holocaust or Shoah can no longer be used to excuse Israel’s behaviour — he “simply cannot understand how the horrors of the last European war can be invoked to license or condone unacceptable behaviour in another time and place.”

The immediate reactions were to mimic Israel’s response — to deny that anything that had happened before October 7 was relevant, to demand everyone condemn Hamas and to give approval for the genocide Israel was openly planning to commit in the name of “self-defence.”

Leaving aside the legal point that an occupier does not have a right to self-defence against the occupied, it should be inconceivable to consider that the indiscriminate killing of over 30,000 people can in any way be described as self-defence.

It is to the West’s shame that it has taken the death of white, “civilised” aid workers for some Western governments and their media to start saying “enough” and to start publicly considering an arms embargo — hypocritically so, after they supplied the means to enable the massacres to take place. This is not now a one-off response or anomaly, it is a systematic six-month demolition of a people — their homes, houses, hospitals and schools. This is designed to make it impossible for a reconstruction of Gaza.

With settlers waiting in the wings eyeing up the Mediterranean coastline of Gaza and Israeli companies itching to get Gaza’s oil reserves, this is not now, and never has been, self-defence. It is a long-awaited opportunity Israel is using to seek to wipe a Palestinian Gaza from the map.

In this context, what are we calling for? Yes, to an immediate, permanent ceasefire, aid, Israeli troops out and reconstruction. For Israel to be held accountable for its actions. But what should the progressive “day after” narrative be?

Much debate focuses on us trying to pick and decide which of the one- or two-state “solutions” is most to our liking, but in doing so we cast aside the principle that the form of the solution is surely a matter for the Palestinians to decide.

Writing for Security in Context, Mandy Turner argues that this political “how many states” stasis needs to be replaced by a practical solution, not one that is unworkable or oppressive. Given that Israel is opposed to any solution other than total control, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, there is a political and, for Palestinians, a very real mountain to climb.

Turner suggests that we should be calling for the occupation to be reclassified as colonisation, for a rights-based, as opposed to a security-based approach and for sustainable development. This recalls the campaigns for the liberation of the Portuguese colonies and Southern Africa.

A liberation movement, as the PLO was originally conceived, for the decolonising of Palestine is a whole different approach to the piecemeal condemnation of individual acts of occupation and settlement by Israel.

It would remain for the Palestinians to determine the physical and political boundaries of that liberation, but it would be a unifying framework that could be used to describe the extent and nature of the change that is required. If adopted by the UN, it would also fundamentally shift the legal framework, as was described by the UN special rapporteur on Palestine, Francesca Albanese, in her “milestone” report of 2022.

She describes the need for a paradigm shift from approaches designed to address specific Israeli violations to improve certain aspects of Palestinian life to one that addresses the root causes of Israel’s “intentionally acquisitive, segregationist and repressive regime.” This should centre on a decolonisation that allows the Palestinian people to freely determine their “political will and pursue their social and economic development alongside their Israeli neighbours.”

This would involve upholding international law “to fully realise the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.” Legally it would follow that there should be “countermeasures” as set out in the UN charter for a failure to comply. Such a reframing is critical if the movement is going to continue to grow once there is a ceasefire of significant duration.

The pro-Palestine solidarity movement has been the biggest continuous political mobilisation this country has ever seen. Not just hundreds of thousands marching regularly in London, but a blossoming of hundreds of local actions and events drawing in a whole different stratum of supporters of Palestine. How do we translate this incredible mobilisation into a movement?

This will not be achieved by the unseemly sight of previously uninvolved groups competing via “placard wars” to become the pre-eminent leaders of the pack allegedly supporting Palestine — while promoting their own self-interested growth. Like the movement against apartheid, it requires a need to prioritise organising to build infrastructure that can continue to grow and build.

There are three critically important arenas where this work could fruitfully focus. First, coalition-building locally. Building on the work that has been done for the solidarity movement to lead the development of local “coalitions for Palestine” involving a wide range of groups including unions, political parties, churches and faith organisations together with local cultural artists. This could involve regional activities focused on the arms trade — Israel’s weakest link.

Second, the trade union movement, many of whose leaders, with some honourable exceptions, have been frightened into abandoning their mandates on Palestine or worse, have incorporated them into those in reality supporting Israel’s actions. This will require recognising the need to refresh from the bottom up the work that has been done historically to make the unions the mainstay of the solidarity movement.

The NEU has led the way, despite government pressure, by openly, publicly and democratically debating Palestine. The aim should be, union by union, to get every union to pass resolutions in support of Palestine and calling for effective measures to end Israel’s illegal settler colonialism.

Third, is to put Palestine back on the agenda of the Labour Party and every other political party. There is a critical time before, during and after the forthcoming general election. Assuming there will be a change of government, our aim must be to ensure that this results in a change of British policy on Palestine.

As it stands, on Palestine, a Keir Starmer government would be just as bad as a Rishi Sunak one. Local constituencies will need to reclaim the right to discuss Palestine — a right that has been suppressed by the Labour Party hierarchy and bureaucracy.

CLP motions should use international law as the central, legitimate framework that Labour must adopt, together with the need for actions to bring about Israel’s compliance. Not just an arms embargo of selling arms, but ending the totality of the arms trade, including the security and military collusion with Israel’s military machine.

It is clearly going to be necessary to hold the next government’s feet to the fire. From day one the pressure must be on for a dramatic shift in Britain’s stance — from walking in the dark shadow of US foreign policy to standing proudly with the majority of largely non-Western countries that continually have supported Palestine’s right to self-determination.

To do this, to move mountains, we are going to need as broad-based a movement as possible. We will not do it from the political fringes of those who already agree. If we fail in this challenge, future generations will wonder if we have not missed a historic opportunity to reverse the trend of history since the Nakba in 1948, when Israel’s settler colonial war started.

Join the May Day Rally for Palestine, online, Wednesday May 1, 6.30pm. Speakers: John McDonnell MP, Beth Winter MP, Louise Regan (Palestine Solidarity Campaign and NEU), Maryam Eslamdoust (TSSA general secretary), Gawain Little (GFTU general secretary), Jess Barnard (Labour NEC member), Mish Rahman (Labour NEC member), Hugh Lanning (Labour and Palestine) —

Stop Arms to Israel, lobby your MP: Zarah Sultana MP has put down an important early day motion in Parliament, noting: “The ruling of the International Court of Justice on January 26 2024, which found that it is plausible that Israel’s ongoing attacks on the Palestinian people in Gaza are in breach of the Genocide Convention,” and “calls on the British government to demand an immediate ceasefire and suspend all arms exports to Israel.” Lobby your MP to sign it today at


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