The SNP conference at the weekend witnessed the first appearance of a controversial new group within the party. While other organisations were priced out of an official conference stall, ‘SNP Friends of Peace in the Middle East’ stumped up thousands of pounds for the opportunity to engage with the delegates in Glasgow.
The group’s founding is a direct response to a growing movement for justice for Palestine within the party. It has been set up by well-known activists from Glasgow Friends of Israel, including former IDF soldier Sammy Stein. Stein is currently subject to an SNP disciplinary process after leading a campaign against the re-election of Sandra White MSP, a long term advocate of Palestinian rights. Don’t be fooled by the name, the organisation is a front for defending Israel in the face of mounting criticism of the illegal occupation of Palestine.
However, in a move that has alarmed some of his colleagues, the organisation was welcomed by SNP MP for Glasgow South Stewart McDonald in a peculiar article titled ‘Why I’m backing the SNP’s new pro-Israel, pro-Palestine group’. To further confuse matters, McDonald was one of the founders of the SNP Friends of Palestine group just last year.
The inaccuracies begin in the headline and run consistently through the article. The group is not pro-Palestine in any sense. The real origins of the organisation were revealed in a series of articles by Michael Gray on CommonSpace but despite these being abundantly clear, McDonald has continued to claim that “these are members from both sides coming together to promote peace.”
In an attempt to clarify, I approached the stall at the conference on Friday to enquire if there was any Palestinians involved. Remarkably, the activists manning the stall pointed at Stein, claiming he was Palestinian. That the organisers are prepared to tell such blatant mistruths seems only to confirm fears about the duplicity of the organisation.
The creation of front groups is not a new tactic among those who seek to defend Israel’s actions. They represent an attempt to create an equilibrium in a conflict where none exists. I risk stating the obvious, but it’s important to remember that there is an occupier and an occupied. Israel is a nuclear-armed state, with the ninth strongest army in the world, and the blanket support of the world’s sole superpower. The Palestinians are a dispersed and dispossessed people largely abandoned by the international community.
The naivety displayed in McDonald’s article in the face of these facts is worrying. Dialogue and discussion are not new concepts to Palestinians. “Constructive engagement” has been attempted for decades through a series of peace talks, notably the Oslo Accords. It has only resulted in further entrenchment of occupation, increased illegal settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip turned into the world’s largest open-air prison.
It was the failure of these peace talks that led to a wide coalition of Palestinian civil society calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until the country abides by international law. A basic tenet of solidarity is listening to the voices of those who you are standing with. McDonald says he wants to set an example for what a “modern Palestinian rights organisation should be”, while at the same time ignoring the united position of those he purports to be advocating for.
This wasn’t always the case. At a pre-election hustings in 2015, McDonald declared that what is happening in Palestine is “apartheid” and committed himself to supporting the BDS movement. It is unclear why he appears to have changed his position so drastically since then.
Similarly, McDonald accuses the “anti-imperialist left” of conflating the conflict with a host of other issues, something which is “unhelpful” to the Palestinian cause. But it’s politically illiterate to ignore the role that imperialism has played, and continues to play, in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians. The people suffering the consequences don’t have the luxury of ignoring such context.
Indeed, upon visiting the region for the first time I discovered that the name people there associate most with Britain was that of former prime minister and foreign secretary Arthur Balfour. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in which Balfour – himself a Scot – promised the land of Palestine to the Zionist movement. Palestine was at that time under British control and it was typical of the entitlement of imperial Britain to believe it was theirs to give away.
Furthermore, in the present day Israel would not be able to act with the impunity that it does without the continued financial and diplomatic support of the United States. This is the context in which the situation was created and in which it is allowed to continue. It is remarkable that someone who claims to have been a long-term advocate of Palestinians rights can be so dismissive of such factors.
The SNP should be applauded for its strong record in opposing racism, including anti-semitism. They should also be commended for commitments to upholding international justice such as former first minister Alex Salmond’s call for an arms embargo on Israel.
This is because when it comes to racism and oppression sitting on the fence should never be an option. Perhaps Stewart McDonald has been hoodwinked about the real motivations behind the formation of the SNP’s latest group. Or perhaps he now genuinely believes support for Israel’s actions is consistent with support for a just peace in the Middle East.
Whatever the case may be I expect the majority of people within the SNP and Scotland as a whole, are unlikely to be fooled. Instead, following in the finest traditions of Scottish internationalism, they will continue to unequivocally stand up for the right of Palestinians to self-determination and return.