Freezing arms sales to Israel is just a first step
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Solidarity with Palestinians means intervening in Britain’s arms industry, says War on Want campaigner Ryvka Barnard to a crowded room at The World Transformed, Momentum’s fringe festival at the Labour Party Conference.
After the Labour Party accepted a motion to freeze its arms sales to Israel this week, campaigners at the festival urged the party to go one step further and end the trade all together.
Even though the government has a licensing criteria restricting weapons sales to any entity that might use them against civilians, £350m worth of military grade hardware has been sold over the past five years to Israel, despite its well-documented human rights violations.
Ryvka explains that there’s no political will in parliament to enforce those rules, as complying with them would amount to a de-facto arms embargo on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and India.
‘Sniper rifles, assault rifles, small arms ammunition, grenade launchers, pistols… are used daily against Palestinians – at the checkpoints, shooting at protestors – so [form a] regular part of the daily life of what occupation looks like,’ she says.
‘Other exports include naval combat vessels that are used in the shelling of Gaza but also to shoot at Palestinian fisherfolk and destroy their machinery – undermining their food security.’
Alia Malak, a Palestenian activist and refugee, said that Britain’s military support is a natural consequence of its active and colonial involvement in historic Palestine.
After the First World War, Britain established a mandate – what Hazem Jamjoum, a PhD candidate at NYU calls ‘essentially a colony’ – and helped political Zionist militias expel Palestinians from the territories – 70 per cent of whom have not secured the right to return since 1948.
‘Today, Britain presents itself as an uninvolved observer, when, in fact, the very same laws which hold Palestinians and their children in administrative detention without charge, are the same ones established by the British in 1945,’ says Alia.
‘The British are more than historically complicit. Through these sales, they are actively involved in the violent occupation of Palestine to this day,’ Hazem says.
Today, he says, Britain supports a two-state solution as a ‘fake way to show solidarity’ that can’t be reconciled with ‘the crucial issue of our right to return’.
’Partition never works,’ he says. Hazem explains that Palestinians don’t need a nation-state per se, but the right to return to their lands from 1948 – a two state solution, by definition would only guarantee Palestinians citizenship in a portion of historic Palestine.
‘We’re so used to thinking in terms of national frameworks that our solidarity is framed in that way too. Personally, I’m a no-state solution kind of guy’.
A resolution to independently investigate the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia was defeated in parliament in 2016 after a Saudi coalition airstrike on a Yemeni funeral killed at least 140 people. Nonetheless, Britain continues to supply arms to violent regimes, under the notion of what Ryvka calls ‘geopolitical influence’ and ‘necessary avenues for job creation’.
Despite the recent shift in political will in the Labour Party, the arms trade shows no sign of slowing down. Ryvka confesses that ‘we can’t dismiss the question about jobs’ but equally, ‘we must create jobs that don’t rely on the destruction of other people’s lives.’
She says: ‘There’s a rich conversation happening about how to re-purpose these factories and re-skill workers in order to work in jobs other than ones in the arms industry. To think about the literal details like, “What can this factory make other than parts for drones?” and it could mean engines for refrigerators.
‘It’s heartening that this issue is being picked up by the Labour leadership right now. But there are going to be blocks. Because the way that it’s presented to us is though it’s a zero-sum game – either jobs in the arms industry or human rights – you choose. Especially in light of Brexit, it’s been presented to us as though that’s the decision and we can say actually no, there’s a different conversation to be had.’
Still, that doesn’t address the issue of what Hazem says is ‘fundamental’ to the Palestine cause – the right of return.
‘We are accustomed to a certain mode of solidarity, which is concerned with showing up to marches only if the death toll is a high enough number, or else it’s too cold outside for it to be worth it.’
Alia agrees that international interest and visible public support for the right of return, particularly during the Great Return March, appeared to be waning. She pins this on Britain’s anti-terror Prevent legislation, saying it elicited ‘genuine fearfulness from people to speak publicly about Palestine’.
This also follows the Labour Party’s decision to officially adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism for the purpose of disciplinary rulings, which defines claims such as ‘the state of Israel is a racist endeavour’ as tantamount to the denial of Jewish self-determination.
Speaking of the adoption of the IHRA definition, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign said: ‘The reality of the Palestinian people’s ongoing dispossession belongs to the public space: Palestinian people have the right to impart information about these present and past injustices, as every British citizen has the right to hear this information, along with the ideas and arguments that emerge directly from it.’
Despite this controversy, there are ‘multiple points of intervention both locally and nationally when it comes to dismantling the arms trade to stand in solidarity with Palestinians,’ Ryvka says.
‘Things don’t change because politicians suddenly decide to stop selling arms, but because of us, because we collectively agitate for those outcomes.’