In her regular column, Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome recounts her recent visit to Palestine and its story of injustice...
As a politician, I’m confronted constantly with the injustices of daily life. Society is so full of oppression, and our economy so rigged, that many people spend their lives being treated like dirt by institutions that are supposed to serve them. MPs’ offices are the dams where the injustice silts up: hungry mums facing benefit sanctions, victims of abuse, disbelieved refugees in fear of their life. Returning every Monday to parliament, I then watch hundreds of posh mediocre men in suits drone on about how it isn’t really happening.
Visiting Palestine in late May, I witnessed a country whose national story is defined by injustice. That injustice goes back much further than the creation of the state of Israel: the Palestinians suffered at the hands of both Ottoman and British colonial administrations before the events of 1948, when Israel was created and millions of Palestinians made into refugees. Since then, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel have have faced a campaign of ethnic cleansing, military domination, land theft and racist discrimination. Earlier this year, Amnesty International threw its weight behind the use of a word that many activists have been using for a long time to describe the situation: apartheid.
Just two weeks before I arrived, Shireen Abu Aqleh, an Al Jazeera journalist, was murdered by the Israeli military. She had been reporting on an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the north of the West Bank, and was wearing a jacket and helmet that clearly identified her as press - but that did not prevent her being shot in the head. Abu Aqleh was in the prime of her career, and was a household name across much of the Middle East. Her death prompted anger and grief.
That was one of the most striking and moving things I took from my time in Palestine: that while injustice and repression tainted every aspect of life, this was also a place of resistance and humanity
In the western media, the incident prompted a display of the bias that runs right through the way that the Israel-Palestine conflict is covered. The New York Times went with the headline: “Shireen Abu Aqleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51.” And when Abu Aqleh’s entirely peaceful funeral procession was attacked by Israeli border guards on the streets of Jerusalem, the BBC reported that there had been “clashes”. I like to think that’s not how the NYT or the BBC would have responded if one of their own had been shot, and all of their colleagues at the scene had corroborated the fact that the bullet had been shot by an IDF sniper.
Shortly after her murder, I visited Abu Aqleh’s home and met some of her family, alongside a handful of other Labour MPs. The room was covered in flowers. Her brother, niece and nephew were grieving, but were also determined to use her death as a means to fight for structural change. Our meeting ended with us being handed a letter, calling on us to support the International Criminal Court’s investigation of Israeli war crimes; call for an independent investigation into Shireen’s killing; and for there to be accountability, not just for the shooter but for the wider military apparatus. It should embarrass us that foreign politicians even need to be asked to support such basic demands.
That was one of the most striking and moving things I took from my time in Palestine: that while injustice and repression tainted every aspect of life, this was also a place of resistance and humanity. In Hebron, I met a women’s collective fighting for their rights against both the Israeli state and the patriarchy of their own society. In Ramallah, I spent time chatting to youth activists who were full of energy and determination. In Jerusalem, I sat in the gallery to watch the bail hearing of a 14-year-old child being held in military detention, his father waving and reassuring him (his release was a rarity, we were told).
Meaningful action means, for me, that we need to root our opposition to what’s happening in Palestine in ties with people who are struggling on the ground
But the last thing I want to do is paint a twee picture of an oppressed people and their struggle for freedom, as if this was a holiday from which I’ve now returned, or as if all we’ve got to do now is mouth slogans about apartheid. Shireen Abu Aqleh’s murder wasn’t just an individual tragedy, it was a collective reality. The West Bank isn’t a postcard out of history: it is, in its current state, a living nightmare - and one which should call us to meaningful action.
Meaningful action means, for me, that we need to root our opposition to what’s happening in Palestine in ties with people who are struggling on the ground. As a socialist, I am determined to build links with Palestinian socialists, feminists and LGBT+ activists, who so often face a battle on two fronts. And while Israeli politics is full of racism and militarism, I was also inspired by the co-resistance of Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups like Standing Together. Israeli socialists, feminists and anti-racists are also key to a lasting, just peace.
It also means applying pressure. I’m going to start by endorsing a campaign of divestment against companies which profit from the oppression of the Palestinians, most prominently the arms trade and the British companies like JCB whose bulldozers regularly flatten Palestinian homes; and sanctions against the Israeli government.
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