Qassam rocket attacks are to be condemned. House demolitions and land theft are also to be condemned. But whilst we condemn, this does not mean that we should not strive to comprehend. One senior Party member – Jenny Tonge – showed comprehension and was sacked. Her offence was to say she understood the desperation that drove Palestinians to become suicide bombers. And her critics seized on this as evidence of sympathy when it was not. And comprehension – expressing understanding – should not be condemned as sympathising.
Yet we should all have sympathy for the Israeli inhabitants of Ashkelon and Sderot, whose towns are subjected to daily arrivals of Qassam rockets. We should sympathise too, for the beleaguered Palestinians living in equal fear in Old Hebron, their front doors welded shut by settlers who spray Stars of David on Palestinian houses, and who terrify Palestinians too fearful of walking the streets of Old Hebron.
But for too long we dared not show understanding or sympathy for this latter group, for fear of being labelled a supporter of terrorism, or of running the risk of being labelled ‘anti-Semitic’.
All three UK Parties have had a voice safeguarding and propagating the case for Israel, through their ‘Friends of Israel’ groups. Yet until 2007 there was no such voice advocating the case for the Palestinians in any of the 3 Parties. Folk seemed reluctant to be seen to be sympathising with ordinary Palestinian families for fear of being labelled ‘terrorist sympathisers’ or ‘anti-Semitic’ as was Jenny Tonge. So the afraid remained unrepresented and voiceless.
One member of our Party supported my piece in the Sunday Times recently but begged not to be named. This Arab person has family in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He is a senior consultant in the NHS and has lived in Britain for years – yet he was afraid that if he was to be identified as speaking in support of his family in the West Bank, trying to exist under the yoke of foreign occupation, then the foreign occupier’s secret police would find him and also punish his family for daring to speak out.
There is a large Palestinian émigré population living in Britain, some of whom are rich and successful business folk. Yet when it comes to demonstrations and protest actions in London and across the regions, they are nowhere to be found. Why? Because they are afraid to speak out. They say they are afraid of the 4 o’clock knock from our Police, who will come and deport them. How many Arab members of our Party have you heard speak on Palestine and international humanitarian law, at Conference?
If a Palestinian child sees his parents humiliated, siblings arrested, house demolished, school shut down, and the Hamas quartermaster comes to him in the child’s teenage years and the now teenager has to make an ethical choice – how likely is he to reject the path of violence for the path of peace and dialogue?
And what about the many thousands of ordinary Palestinian families who have no interest in fighting the Occupier, but who just want a normal life? Who speaks for them? Who puts the case for the brave group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have joined together to try to convince their respective Governments to stop the cycle of violence and uphold international humanitarian law? Or the many Israeli peace groups who are vilified as ‘traitors’ or ‘self-hating Jews’?
Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine were formed last year to try to champion the afraid and the reluctant. We believe it should be Party policy to insist on the even-handed and scrupulous application of international law, and international humanitarian law, and that those who breach it should be called to account.
It is right to sympathise with the dispossessed, the weak and the downtrodden. It is right, just, and required, that all be given a voice, not just those who are mightiest and most powerful in this dreadful cycle of violence in the former British Mandate of Palestine.
Please visit our web site at www.ldfp.eu and join us – £10 a year if you believe that the liberal democratic rights of freedom to live free of fear, should hold good for Palestinian families as well as Israeli security interests, and that it is now time for a call to action to ensure our Party champions the primacy of international humanitarian law in the Israel/Palestine issue. Abraham’s many millions of children deserve it.
Kerry Hutchinson is the media co-ordinator for the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.