This piece appeared on 20 October on openDemocracy

The other day I spotted a tweet about an episode in the history of the British Mandate in Palestine known as ‘The Sergeants Affair‘. The tweet didn’t call it that; I only learned its name and details when I looked it up, but it piqued my interest because it referred to British army casualties in the creation of the Israeli state, a fact I’d never thought much about.

I discovered that Mervyn Paice and Clifford Martin, two British NCOs charged with gathering intelligence about the activities of Jewish terrorist gangs, were kidnapped by Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group run by Menachem Begin who would go on to become Israel’s sixth prime minister more than 30 years later. The group hoped threatening the lives of the NCOs would stop the British from executing three Irgun members who had been arrested for terrorising Arab civilians. They were wrong: the men were executed, so Irgun killed Paice and Martin, later hanging their bodies in a eucalyptus grove near Netanya.

The executions were ordered after the British formally dispensed with the niceties of due process through measures known as the Defence (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, in a last-ditch effort to bring order to the chaos that had been unleashed in Palestine, including widespread attacks on civilians. Three years after these ’emergency’ regulations were instituted, the British Mandate ended and the country ostensibly washed its hands of the conflict it had been instrumental in helping create, and Israel declared its independence.

The Sergeants Affair struck me for several reasons beyond its illumination (once again) of the hypocritical semantics of ‘terrorism’ amply documented on this blog and elsewhere.

First, there was its coverage in the UK media at the time. The NCOs’ murders, described as Irgun’s ‘bestialities’, were universally condemned both for their cruelty and for damaging the ‘Jewish cause.’ Even the Jewish Chronicle, under its then editor John Shaftesley declared that ‘British Jewry cannot but feel a deep sense of shame that these murders have been committed.’

Their response was silence

Compare that with the furore last summer when the same newspaper ran an advertisement for a DEC Gaza humanitarian appeal. Shrill calls to boycott the paper alongside pressure from Israel’s embassy in London led Stephen Pollard, its editor and an unwavering supporter of Israeli policy, to issue an apology for allowing the words ‘human’ and ‘Gaza’ to appear on the same page on his watch.

Compare it, too, with the response from John Kerry and Philip Hammond, the US and UK foreign secretaries, to the murder of 18 month-old Ali Dawabshe and his parents by Israeli settlers, deaths which left Ali’s four year-old brother Ahmed an orphan. If you’re drawing a blank you’ve remembered correctly: their response was silence.

Admittedly, the UK Foreign Office and the Obama Administration both issued statements ‘condemning’ the arson attack on the Dawabshe family home, with Barack Obama proclaiming his confidence that the Israeli legal system would bring the perpetrators to justice. And yet last month, when Israeli authorities admitted that they know who committed this vicious act but did not intend to arrest them, the response was universal silence. You see, before the ink was dry Ali Dawabshe and his family had been relegated to history, exposing our government’s neatly contained sympathy as a well-honed mechanism for severing cause and effect, for decontextualizing the Palestinian situation so that when widespread violence erupts as it did early this month, its ‘starting point’ can be determined by the exigencies of our foreign policy, unmolested by either history or facts on the ground.

Still, for me the issue here is not just about the relative value of human life. It is a reminder that this country once felt some responsibility for protecting Palestinians, and was prepared to put its own personnel in harm’s way to do so if only out of a sense of shame about its complicity in creating mayhem.

Mum’s the word, as the Bard put it

If that sounds like a revisionist fairy-tale aimed at whitewashing colonial guilt by ascribing to it a perverse morality, that’s because the standards set by today’s political leaders have given it this nostalgic hue. Taking its cue from Tony Blair, the UK government under David Cameron has not merely abandoned concern or responsibility for Palestinian civilians and Palestinian human rights, it has explicitly repudiated such responsibility. Its message to Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist allies Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, alongside Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, has come through loud and clear: mum’s the word, as the Bard put it. And if we occasionally have to rise to the explicit defence of the indefensible, deploying talking points and false narratives drafted in Tel Aviv or Riyadh or Cairo, it’s nothing a shot of whiskey and a cuddle in front of the telly won’t put right.

A few weeks ago, just days after the Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood acknowledged that there have been close to 700 Israeli violations of last summer’s Gaza ceasefire, Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the FO, informed the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that human rights now take a back seat to trade in UK foreign policy. He went on to clarify that the government’s first commitment was therefore to the ‘stability’ of its ‘international partners.’

Many have expressed alarm at those remarks, and I can see why. After all, swapping UN Human Rights Council votes to help cover up Saudi brutality goes far beyond helping ensure stability; it constitutes complicity.

Their enemies become our enemies

But what strikes me most forcefully about these comments is the either/or paradigm they rely on in order to post-rationalise ideologically-informed decisions and cultural biases. Instead of choosing in the first place ‘international partners’ that are stable by dint of their commitment to democracy, transparency, widespread prosperity and the rule of law, the UK dance card is filled with promises to serial rights abusers, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Israel and most recently to China, who rely on suppression and violence in order to ensure this so-called stability. Consequently, their enemies become our enemies abroad and at home, where we begin policing the public sphere to satisfy ‘commercially-driven’ foreign policy imperatives.

Call me a dimwit, but I fail to see how these tightrope dalliances serve the interests of British trade. Indeed, as Peter Oborne wrote in August,

“In the Middle East … we are confronting a growing terrorist threat in the region with an ever-decreasing base in popular support, and actually hated by an ever-growing population who identify Britain with their oppressors. There is no country in the Middle East, or around the world, where Britons are safer, or can do business more securely, as a result of Blairite policy.” [my emphasis]

In the event, there are good reasons to doubt whether economics informs this despot-suckling policy framework. Recently, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Greg Clark, announced that guidelines will soon be implemented to stop local councils from boycotting arms companies and those that work in illegal Israeli settlements, alleging that such boycotts ‘harm the economic security of families by pushing up council tax.’ Yes, you read that correctly: rather than providing cover for the UK’s dubious allies and its weapons lobby, the proposed guidelines are aimed at protecting ‘hardworking families’.

If localism and political dissent are the first casualties of this preposterous formulation, irony surely makes the top five. After all, Clark’s assertion rests on the claim that it is only ‘militant’ councils that refuse to work with arms companies and those that benefit from well-documented human rights abuses and violations of international law. An odd form of ‘militancy’ indeed. But it’s surely his colleague Matthew Hancock who takes the irony sweepstakes with the claim that such boycotts constitute ‘playground politics’, instantly bringing to mind the image seen around the world last summer of four boys playing football on a Gaza beach before being gunned down by Israeli forces. I guess that’s someone else’s playground.

Corbyn and the moving centre ground

Politicians and media pundits enjoy talking about the coveted ‘centre ground’ where perceived wisdom puts much of the electorate. But this centre is relative to the poles it sits between, and I’d guess most people locate themselves there because they don’t regard themselves as ‘extremists’. Instead, they rely on hate mongers like Katie Hopkins to spout vile rubbish masquerading as ‘common sense’, disinfected by its appearance in putatively respectable newspapers like the Murdoch-owned Sun, with which they nod along smugly thinking they’re just like everybody else.

Few would dispute that the centre has shifted significantly since the Reagan and Thatcher eras, lurching ever rightward with the ‘left’ following sheepishly behind. Of course, here in the UK this left/right debate came to the fore dramatically a few months back thanks to a Labour leadership fight in which Jeremy Corbyn, an ‘old school’ leftist candidate, was invited to participate for the sake of notional diversity, and won by a landslide. The hostility and smears that constituted the campaign’s relentless Greek chorus (on a single day, The Guardian ran five anti-Corbyn pieces on its homepage) have continued unabated since Mr Corbyn’s victory.

An anti-Corbyn Labour voter I know told me recently that he doesn’t believe people want the railways re-nationalised; they just want cheaper and more reliable trains, he said. I suspect he’s right and his tidy dismissal unwittingly exposed the ‘centre’ at the heart of these questions. Notwithstanding the hysteria of the Blairites, it’s not the ‘centre ground’ – a concept crafted to manage the conscience rather than animating the spirit – that’s at stake here. I will leave its concerns to the bureaucrats.

Whilst I’m certainly ‘progressive’, I am not a socialist and I want better, cheaper trains. But for me, the question thrown up by Corbyn’s leadership is not how to achieve that. It’s whether we are content to have leadership reduced to pushing a button. It’s whether we swallow the false dichotomy between ‘head’ and ‘heart’. It’s whether we define courage as feigning certainty, or asking questions. It’s the place of moral agency in public life.

The untenable status quo

As The Observer‘s Ed Vulliamy said in a piece critiquing his newspaper’s coverage of the Corbyn victory,

“Even more fundamental is the appeal to principle and morality – peace, justice and internationalism…Why not embrace those principles, or at least show an interest in the fact that thousands of people just did?

“What’s the point of principles if their trade-off for power is a principle in itself? Why have principles at all?” he asked.

If you’re still with me, let’s return for a moment to the question of Israel and Palestine. The current UK government and its predecessors for the past 20 years justify their unwillingness to take a firm, thoughtful and humane position on the issue of Palestinian rights and Israeli settlement expansion by claiming that this ‘intractable’ problem is too ‘complex’ for such interventions. On this one issue, they challenge Gandhi and Mandela and even Margaret Thatcher, who said of Israel ‘you cannot demand for yourself what you deny to others.’

In reality, it is their own cartoonishly facile stand, in which Israeli victimhood is the given from which Palestinian aggression must follow – a stand propped up with cherry-picked ‘facts’, self-serving prejudice and wilful blindness – that help perpetuate this untenable status quo. For it’s clear that no disparity in military capability and financial support from abroad, no chasm in rates of civilian casualties, no bloody siege, no diversion of water and power from Palestinian land to Israeli settlements, no years-long blockade, no magic number of ceasefire violations and no illegal ‘separation fence’ will disturb the government’s one-dimensional view on Israel and Palestine.

Indeed, our government denounces Palestinian resistance when it is violent, whilst at the same time aggressively seeking to stifle non-violent protest such as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. These disparities raise serious moral questions, cynically obscured by those who claim that to ask them is to hate both Jews and Britain itself.

In his work ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’, the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said wrote of the imperative for each side to recognise that while for Jews the creation of Israel was a liberationist victory, for the Palestinians it was a nakba or catastrophe. As a consequence, he said, Palestinians are the victims of the victims. Now there is an authentic, messy paradox untouchable by shrill denunciations, facile platitudes and focus-grouped compassion. Let’s discuss.

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