Ghada Karmi says: it’s time to do the “hard thing” re Israel and Palestine






Ghada Karmi is a Palestinian doctor of medicine, author and academic.  She is a fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Arab & Islamic studies at Exeter University, and writes frequently on Palestinian issues in newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, the Nation and the Journal of Palestine Studies.  She is also author of two autobiographical works:  In Search of Fatima and Return.

On Monday 19th September, 2016, she gave a stimulating talk at a LibDem conference fringe event in Brighton, at the invitation of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (LDFP).  Jonathan Fryer was in the Chair and there was a panel of three discussants: Miranda Pinch, John McHugo and John Kelly.  While LDFP does not necessarily endorse everything Dr Karmi said, we feel her talk was a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about how to achieve equality and justice for the Palestinians.

The talk

Ghada Karmi started by reminding us how, in 1948, Israel had expelled and made refugees of most of the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants, and then prevented them from returning to their homes.  During the years that followed, those left behind were at times subject to strict Israeli military rule.  The rest of Palestine was occupied in 1967, creating another wave of refugees, and after this Israel began to establish a large number of illegal settlements for its own inhabitants within the self-same occupied territories.  Subsequently it has subjected Gaza to a siege requiring its inhabitants to survive on UN aid, and periodic wars have allowed Israel to use it as a laboratory for testing its weaponry on live subjects.  She went on to say that Israel had broken nearly all aspects of international law, and the much vaunted “two-state solution” had proved a complete failure.

Palestinians had resisted in every possible way[1], but none of these had been to any avail.  Israel is far from alone in committing gross human rights abuses, but it has enjoyed unprecedented impunity and “red carpet” treatment that the international community has not accorded to other nations (Ghada did not provide an example of this, but the sanctions against Russia for, its invasion of the Crimea and treatment of Ukraine spring immediately to mind).

Seeking to explain the persistence of this appalling state of affairs, she pointed to an asymmetry, or inconsistency, within our own country and other Western nations.  There was on the one hand a lot of solidarity activity at civil society level, but this had not been mirrored at the official level, where Israel had continued enjoying overwhelming support – notwithstanding some “small moves in the right direction” like the EU’s denial of trade preferences for goods from Israel’s illegal settlements.

The explanation for this asymmetry could be found in the pro-Israel lobby, an “army of apologists” that was funding political parties, wooing MPs, threatening careers, shutting down free debate in the UK, and smearing people as “anti-Semitic”.  As regards careers, two Liberal Democrats, Jenny Tonge and David Ward, had already paid the price for this.  As regards shutting down debate, heavy lobbying had caused the cancellation of the Southampton University Law Department conference about the legitimacy of the Israeli State, and had also undermined collaboration between the Lancet and Birzeit University in Ramallah that would have helped more researchers to publish and gain international recognition.

Smearing was the most powerful tool, and the Lobby had sought to advance it by working with the EU to extend the traditional meaning of anti-Semitism – that of hostility towards Jews – to criticisms of Israel and Zionism, and engaging in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).   The practical application was evident in the Labour Party, where there had been a veritable witch-hunt, even though most denunciations only related to comments about the State of Israel, and in the campaign against the President of the NUS.   This was an unacceptable form of “intellectual terrorism” whereby the Lobby not only censored critics of Israel, but caused others to engage in self-censorship.

The speaker concluded that nothing would change without a change in the approach of western nations. “Something needs to be done about Israel”, she told us.  Palestinians didn’t need charity or the “cardigan syndrome” but “Israel needs to be taken off their necks”.   She characterised much British behaviour towards Israel and Palestine as doing the “lazy thing”, which involves making visits, professing love and providing charity.  The “hard thing” is to think hard about Israel, and to find ways of countering Israeli influence on this country’s politics.

She also volunteered an opinion about the LibDems’ approach, saying she felt Tim Farron had yet to visit Israel and the Occupied Territories, and needed to be more engaged with the topic.  She recommended that concerned LibDems discuss the matter frankly with Tim, and ask him some searching questions and what he plans to do about Israel’s behaviour and its influence on UK’s politics.

Comments by discussants

As daughter of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, a secular Jew, Miranda Pinch made the point that she enjoyed the “right of return” to Israel, whereas Palestinians who had been forced to flee were not allowed to return.  She also commented on some “not very political” Palestinian women friends who are afraid to use social media for fear of expressing ideas that Israel might arrest them for.   They were also afraid of driving locally to work or to meet friends since Israeli soldiers have been shooting to kill Palestinians on little evidence of intention, let alone of any action, putting them in danger.

John McHugo, a distinguished historian and author of A Concise History of the Arabs, pointed to the devastating impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on relations between Arabs/Muslims and the West, and said that it had caused anti-Semitism in the Arab world.  A solution to the conflict would by contrast help improve the situation across the Middle-East.

John Kelly spoke of the time-consuming and humiliating treatment of Palestinians at borders and checkpoints, about very unpleasant behaviour of settlers in Hebron, and the great difficulties Palestinian universities experience in recruiting foreign students and faculty members.  The uneven playing field that this creates between Israeli and Palestinian universities justified an academic boycott.

Summing up

There were nine comments from the floor, after which Ghada Karmi made a few further points.  Firstly, she spoke warmly of Jewish opponents of the Israeli Government whom she considers both brave and her friends.

In terms of prescriptions, she urged British people to support BDS, describing it as the one thing that gives hope to the Palestinian people.  Its importance could be gauged by the fact that Israel had set up a special unit to fight it, and sent out emissaries to bully westerners into closing it down.  At the same time it was necessary to face down the “anti-Semitic” smearing described above.

Ghada opposes the “two state solution” because it helps preserve an Israel of a kind she disapproves.  By contrast she wants a shared land where Jews, Palestinians and refugees can live together in peace.

A few comments by Liberal Democratic Friends of Palestine (LDFP)

Ghada Karmi surprised us somewhat with the forthright nature of her comments, but they were far from unwelcome.   Most of what she said is very close to LDFP’s thinking as expressed in its Position Paper on, and in line with bold LibDem policies enunciated during the first decade of this century, notably the Party’s call in 2008 for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association agreement.

We thank her for pointing out the need to eschew the path of least resistance, avoid anodyne statements and do the “hard thing”.   Indeed the University Fees debacle teaches us that getting the Party’s thinking clear at the outset will save a lot of pain later in the day.

LDFP is in discussions with Tim Farron over a trip for him to visit the Occupied Territories in early 2017.

We also thank Ghada Karmi for her words about Jenny Tonge and David Ward.  They may not always have chosen the best words to express themselves (who does?), but we reject all “anti-Semitic” smears against them, from people who cannot claim to know the inner workings of their minds, and feel that they deserve the Party’s support.

We are agnostic on the matter of the two-state or one-state solution, and feel that Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate the solution that best suits them.   The main role of the UK and other Western Powers should be to apply the necessary diplomatic and financial pressure to persuade the stronger party (Israel) to negotiate in good faith and respect legitimate Palestinian rights, while the weaker party (Palestine) can negotiate freely without the duress inherent in occupation.  The most immediate and obvious form of pressure is to assert unequivocally the illegality of settlements and to ban all trade with them.

[1] Diplomatic and legal steps, non-violent protest, violent resistance etc.