Scotland and Palestine
The 5th of June marked what Palestinians call Al Naksa (the Setback), referring to the 1967 War when the Israeli forces demolished homes and villages, displaced hundreds of thousands, and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, Palestinians have been demonstrating to commemorate this, being met by rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas and sound bombs; the Israeli government just announced that it plans to build 1500 new homes for Jewish-only colonies on usurped Palestinian land.
Last month in Palestine was a microcosm of the brutal and systematic Israeli oppression that has characterised Palestinian daily life. Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem continued to be demolished. (During the skewed ‘peace talks’, Israeli forces demolished 500 Palestinian structures.[i]) On the 15th, Palestinians commemorated Al Nakba (the Catastrophe) – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militas. Israeli soldiers shot and killed two unarmed teenagers Mohammad Abu al-Thahir (16) and Nadim Nuwara (17). They were murdered during a demonstration near Ofer jail in the West Bank.[ii] A video of the killing was circulated by Defence of Children International. Ten days later, Pope Francis made an unscheduled trip to pray at the apartheid wall in Bethlehem, by doing so he brought to world attention the most potent symbol of colonial racism.[iii] By the end of the month, over 200 Palestinian prisoners were on hunger strike in solidarity with others being held in ‘administrative detention’, a practice whereby individuals are incarcerated without charge or trial. 40 hunger strikers were hospitalised due to their deteriorating condition. There are now over 5000 Palestinians in Israeli jails – around 190 of those in administrative detention, eight of those are elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.[iv]
In response to this ongoing injustice, an increasing number of people in Scotland are driven by indignation at the practices of the Israeli state to take action in various ways. Solidarity activism takes a variety of forms: being part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; engaging in Palestinian cultural events; hosting Palestinian speakers. A variety of grassroots organisations have emerged to promote and advocate the realisation of fundamental human rights for Palestinians. Palestinians in Scotland, Scottish Jews for a Just Peace, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (BDS) and Student Palestine Solidarity Scotland are all active groups, occasionally co-ordinating activities together. There is not one city in our country that lacks a coherent group dedicated to the Palestinian cause. University students have played an integral role in activism, notably as the driving force behind the 2012 demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinian hunger strikers. Hundreds of people marched to the BBC HQ in Glasgow to protest the broadcaster’s choice of omitting to cover those hungering for justice.
The Scottish Government position has been ambivalent and inconsistent. In April 2010, Alex Salmond was quoted as saying “you can’t have normal relationships if you believe another country has been involved in what Israel has been involved in.”
This was hugely encouraging to hear. Granted, it was not an explicit statement supporting sanctions, but this language indicated a timid approach to an endorsement of it by the Scottish government. In May 2014, Humza Yousaf spoke to Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. He stated that it is Scottish government policy not to boycott Israeli goods (including those from illegal Israeli colonies), that the Scottish government’s approach to the Middle East “doesn’t vary much from the UK government,” and that Israel is not an apartheid state. This is as surprising as it is disappointing – in Scotland, we have worked hard to distance ourselves from British policy on Palestine. We hope that an independent Scotland would adopt a foreign policy of peace, co-operation and opposition to nuclear proliferation.
The British state has been vital to the colonisation of Palestine, starting formally with the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Military and diplomatic support remains unwavering almost 100 years later. UK arms sales to the Israeli state in the past few years amount to £35 million. F-16 fighter jets – used to flatten Lebanese and Palestinian civilian areas – contain UK manufactured components.[v] The British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, is openly Zionist. During his time working in the British embassy of Iran, he was responsible for co-ordination on US policy relating to the country. In terms of news coverage, the BBC does a superlative job of completely distorting the reality of Palestine into a story of a between equals, where Israeli lives are infinitely more valuable (and therefore reportable) than the lives of Palestinians.[vi]
Many of us within active groups campaigning for Scottish independence want our country to adopt a foreign policy oriented towards social justice and human rights globally. By extension, this means that officials of an independent Scotland would not give diplomatic cover to, or support in any way, a state that is guilty of systematic human rights violations. The Israeli state’s policies in relation to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel are direct violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Israel is the only power in its region armed with nuclear weapons, and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
An independent Scotland should acknowledge the Palestinian 2005 call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, by ensuring it terminates all trade, cultural, military and diplomatic links with it. The BDS call was recently endorsed by the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine, Richard Falk.[vii] Economically isolating the state with sanctions is an effective, non-violent method of compelling the Zionist government to adhere to international law. Scotland could set an important precedent as a western state taking a legal and moral stand against the Israeli project of occupation, colonisation and apartheid. This approach to foreign policy could be made concrete by having our principles expressed in a written constitution. This could simply state that Scottish agencies or companies cannot engage with states perpetrating human rights abuses. Adherence to the this article of the constitution would be maintained by strong grassroots campaigns and civil society organisations. This described is inter-state activity; for individuals, Scotland could play a positive role also. It could open up its universities to Palestinian refugees, by offering them fully-paid undergraduate degrees.
Now numbering around 7 million, Palestinian refugees are the most unique: they are not refugees by virtue of fleeing from violence, but from being barred from returning home, by Israeli law. In December 2012, Venezuela abolished – for civil and diplomatic passports – entrance visas for Palestinians.[viii] Scotland could feasibly adopt this measure also, although it is mostly a gesture of solidarity. These are small gestures do more to express our progressive values than confront the colonial occupation of Palestine. The adoption and promotion of sanctions is the priority, and the move which will yield best results, in terms of pushing for Palestinian freedom in the long-term.
Scotland has the resources to achieve social justice for its own people, but this can be internationalised and can set an example for other societies to do likewise. With gaining autonomy and sovereignty, the burden of responsibility emerges and must be embraced. The conflict in Palestine is not complex or intractable, and can be reduced to asking ourselves if we would prefer choosing the status quo of siding with the oppressor or the less-trodden path towards elemental justice.