Tower Hamlets Council must respect right to free speech

Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign press release on the lobby of and petition to Tower Hamlets Council on 21 November. The lobby, supported by Free Speech On Israel,  and the petition called on the Council to challenge antisemitism and respect the right to free speech and safeguard Palestinian solidarity.

On Wednesday 21st November, a group of  residents from Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Campaign (TH PSC) presented a petition to the full council meeting, requesting that the council ‘Safeguard Palestinian Solidarity’ and addressed the Council in support of the petition. This was in response to the recent adoption of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, without any caveat that would enable Palestinians and their supporters to continue to speak out freely about harmful actions of the Israeli government.

TH PSC are pleased that in response to our petition Councillors Sirajul Islam, Kevin Brady, and Mayor John Biggs made supporting statements in solidarity with Palestine. All three noted that it is not racist to criticise Israel. After the petition Councillor Andrew Wood suggested that Israel’s policies might be ‘war crimes’. Listen to a recording of the Council meeting.

In light of this, we are disappointed that the Mayor chose to reject our petition at full council, and not make a clear commitment to protect freedom of speech. We are also concerned that the Mayor condemned the petition as ‘offensive’, and questioned our right to petition, despite his earlier supportive comments. We are also concerned that the speaker allowed councillors to talk the petitioners out of time, in a further effort to silence us.

Anti-semitism on the rise

As we said at the meeting, antisemitism is on the rise across the world, and openly antisemitic governments are in power in Hungary, Lithuania, Austria – electoral success fanned by Trump’s racist policies. We were horrified at the murder of eleven Jews in Pittsburgh, in an attack clearly motivated by antisemitism and the hostile environment of current US politics.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi addresses the lobby.

It is clear that antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism are on the rise in the UK. This is a particular concern to residents of Tower Hamlets. We have been actively involved in building opposition to this, including support for the Unity march against fascism and racism on 17 November, where we joined numerous Labour Party and Union members, including councillors from Tower Hamlets. We will march again on 9 December to oppose the rally called by Tommy Robinson and UKIP in London.

Problems with the IHRA definition

We believe that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism does not just fail to help in identifying or combating real antisemitism; it sows divisions amongst those that the far right target. The definition itself is vague, and many legal experts have questioned it, including Sir Stephen Sedley QC, Hugh Tomlinson QC and Sir Geoffrey Bindman.

Despite claims to the contrary there is widespread concern about the definition within the Jewish community.  The man who drafted the IHRA definition of antisemitism has condemned its use to curb freedom of speech.

Some of the examples attached to the definition threaten to silence Palestinian voices, and it is the responsibility of those campaigning for Palestinian rights to raise concerns.

TH Council adopts IHRA definition

We are aware that numerous councils across the UK have adopted the IHRA working definition in one form or another but are concerned that Mayor Biggs claims that it is an ‘international definition’.

The IHRA itself lists only eight governments that have adopted the IHRA’s working definition, and two of those include ruling parties that promote antisemitism and revisionist versions of Holocaust history, namely Austria and Lithuania.

We are extremely concerned that the adoption by Tower Hamlets Council of this working definition could lead to a situation where citizens expressing support for Palestine, or criticising Israel, could be subject to legal or work place sanctions. This has happened in Dudley where UNISON member Paul Jonson has been suspended from his council job for stating on social media that ‘Israel is a racist endeavour’. We support the solidarity campaign in defence of Paul by many trade unionists and others, including within his own union, UNISON.

Palestinian solidarity at risk

Criticising Zionism or Israel as a state does not constitute criticism of Jews as individuals or as a people and is not evidence of antisemitism. Allegations of antisemitism without further supporting evidence are unfair and unjust.  In the absence of this the necessity of holding the government of Israel, to account by the international community is prejudiced. We are particularly concerned that Tower Hamlets Council should be made aware of the misuse of this issue by the far right.

The real danger is that the adoption of the IHRA working definition will silence Palestinian voices. Its adoption by Tower Hamlets Council without caveat or due discussion, threatens division in Tower Hamlets between those who have a common interest in combating antisemitism, Islamophobia, and the rise of the far right.

Contact: Sybil Cock, Tower Hamlets Jenin Friendship Association and Palestine Solidarity Campaign


Activists accused of disrupting arms fair go on trial trial

Eight activists accused of attempting to disrupt an international arms fair went on trial at Stratford Magistrates Court today with leading expert witnesses lined up in support.

The defendants, including Angela Ditchfield, Tom Franklin and Isa Al-Aali, were arrested on 9 and 10 September 2015, accused of obstructing the entry of tanks and heavy goods  vehicles by blocking the roads with their bodies.

The action was part of the Stop The Arms Fair week of action of which three are accused of blocking the East gate of the ExCel centre, where the fair is held, by locking themselves to the gate with arm tubes and two are accused of obstructing the West gate by D-locking their necks to the gate.

The DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) arms fair exists so that arms buyers and sellers can come together, network and make deals, and it takes place every two years in London’s Docklands.

DSEI is jointly organised by Clarion Events and the UK Government. Buyers include countries involved in conflict and from human rights abusing regimes. In September 2015 over 1500 exhibitors attended from around the world, including most of the world’s largest arms companies, displaying arms ranging from rifles to tanks, fighter jets, battleships, missiles, military electronics, surveillance and riot control equipment.

The expert witnesses have supplied written reports and will attend in person to give oral evidence for the defence concerning the nature of the DSEI arms fair:

  • Andrew Feinstein is the former ANC Member of Parliament who resigned in
    2001 in protest at the government’s refusal to allow an unfettered
    investigation into a £5bn arms deal that has been identified as the
    biggest corruption scandal in South Africa’s history. He went on to author
    The Shadow World, a book described by the Washington Post as “possibly the
    most complete account [of the global arms trade] ever written.” He is
    currently Executive Director of Corruption Watch UK, an NGO which
    researches the global arms trade and details and exposes weapons
    violations, bribery, corruption and other malfeasance.
  • Oliver Sprague is Programme Director of Arms Control and Policing at Amnesty International UK. He has worked on technical aspects of UK arms export controls for over 20 years. Sprague gives regular oral and written evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee working on arms export controls. He has given expert evidence on breaches of export control legislation at DSEI (and other defence exhibitions) on numerous occasions.
  • Sayed Ahmed is Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights
    and Democracy (BIRD), a London based NGO which seeks to improve human
    rights and accountability in Bahrain.

The defendants will also seek to give personal testimony of their reasons for opposing the arms fair and the catalogue of oppressive regimes that shop there. This will include a firsthand account from a Bahraini activist who was tortured during the Bahraini uprising, an account from a Kurdish Solidarity activist with experience of Turkey’s brutal repression and attacks on Kurdistan; and an anti-militarist activist that has previously sought to privately prosecute two arms companies for the promotion of illegal torture weapons at DSEI 2013.

The defendants will be using the defence of necessity, arguing that their actions were justified since they were intended to prevent greater crimes including:

  • The sale of weapons to internally repressive regimes including Bahrain
    and Saudi Arabia;
  • The sale of weapons to countries imminently at war and overtly complicit in ongoing war crimes in Yemen, Kurdistan and Palestine;
  • The sale of weapons to regimes that have been widely accused of arming ISIS; and
  • The promotion for sale of weapons that are designed specifically for torture or banned under international law for their capabilities concerning the mass indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Defendant Tom Franklin, 57, of Clifton Without, York said: “It is intolerable that the government is supporting the sale of illegal weapons and weapons being used to kill ordinary people from the West Bank to Yemen and Sudan.  ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’ So I had to try to prevent evil”.

In a joint public statement the Defendants Campaign said: “We know that the tools of the type promoted for sale at DSEI will be used to reinforce apartheid, to surveil and brutalise communities from Brixton to Bahrain, and to perpetuate the border regime that kills thousands every year – as European states wage a war against the refugees they helped create. We know that weapons promoted at DSEI are used to incinerate whole
families at the touch of a button in places from Palestine to Pakistan.

“We know that such weapons will continue to devastate landscapes and do permanent environmental damage across the globe. And that these weapons have been used in systematic forced evictions and ethnic cleansing; such as against the people of Kurdistan. And we know that weapons of the type promoted at DSEI will be used to torture and repress people based on their political views, faith, gender, or sexuality in places like Saudi Arabia. Sometimes the tools of oppression are literal – and they are for sale at DSEI arms fair.”

Cartoonist Tim adds his mark to Abu Dis Wall

tims wall drawingTim Sanders left his mark on the apartheid wall that separates the Palestinian district of Abu Dis from the rest of Jerusalem, splitting neighbours and relatives from each other.

About 60,000 Palestinians with Jerusalem-residency IDs are now forced to cross through a military checkpoint to get to their schools and workplaces.

Three years ago Abu Dis protestors used sledgehammers to make a 4-metre hole which they climbed through.


Day 8: South Hebron Bedouin fight to remain on their land

south hebron 2There are two communities that live side by side in the South Hebron Hills. One is Carmel, a gated Israeli settlement of 400 residents, with lush gardens and air conditioned homes.

The other – just beyond Carmel’s barbed wire fencing – is the Bedouin hamlet of Umm al Khair, a collection of about 70 people living in tin huts and tents with no access to electricity or running water.

The Bedouins in Umm al Khair came here nearly 70 years ago when Israel expelled them from the Naqab desert. They bought the land bit by bit over a ten- year period from people who lived in the nearby town of Yatta. In total it cost them what amounted to 100 camels.

south hebron 2They attracted little attention from the Israeli authorities until 1980 when the decision was made to build Carmel and the settlers began to look looked greedily on the Bedouin land.

The means of grabbing it was through the issue of phoney military zone orders by the Israeli army so the Bedouin structures – from their homes to their bread oven and more recently the small toilets they had built – became illegal.

sth hebron 4
Meliha with one of her grandchildren

Some structures have been demolished two or three times and then rebuilt. Soldiers attack the goats, sheep and the shepherds that tend them. The Bedouins have papers to prove ownership but are forbidden permits to enable them to build new houses or maintain the old ones. The Bedouins refuse to leave.

Meliha, a 56 year old woman with 17 grandchildren, says the Palestine Authority have been of no help. “They came once, took a picture and then left,” she said. “We have to be steadfast. The Palestine Authority build mansions in Ramallah but we stay here to fight to keep our land.”

Day 7: Hebron: from thriving centre to ghost town

image 4We made it through the checkpoint to the Jewish enclave in the old city of Hebron, which now contains some of the West Bank’s most hardline settlers.

The area is usually off-limits to non-Israelis, but we managed to wander through the ghost town that was once home to thousands of Palestinians. Now it is home to 400 settlers that are protected by 2,000 soldiers.

image 2This was once the centre of city life with 300 shops, the central market and government offices. Now the houses are sealed up and the shops closed behind rusty shutters. The old bus station has been turned into an army base.

The few Palestinians that remain can only enter their homes by climbing along their roofs and making holes between the houses. Children do the same to get to school, often having to avoid a barrage of stones and filth being thrown at them by the settlers.

image 1image 3

Day 6: Bedouin struggle to maintain their way of life

By Mary Brodin

Optimized-motherThis is Yisra with her son – one of her 10 children. They are Bedouins who live in the beautiful sheep-herding countryside near Mar Saba Monastery (between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea).

Yisra, and 10 other Bedouin families who live close by, have lived in this area for centuries. They would like to build stone houses to replace their tents but are refused permission as the area has been designated Area C (under full Israeli civil and security control) since the 1995 Oslo Accords.

homeThe tents provide a kitchen and two sleeping areas and only got electricity three years ago with a solar panel. Their water supply is a small tank at the top of the hill.

They have 11 sheep, five goats, one donkey and a chicken and make a meagre living by giving rides on the donkey to the rare visitors to the monastery.

treeMany of their Bedouin neighbours have left to go and live in Bethlehem which is exactly what the authorities want.

For once the area is cleared they will take it over for Israeli settlements and greenhouses.

Day 6: Tear gassing the Theatre – actors and audience under fire

key entranceBy Ruby Hirsch

Yesterday we entered the Aida Refugee Camp, outside of Bethlehem, through a black gate holding  a huge key, symbolising the right of return for the residents of the camp.

Many refugees within the West Bank, who were forcibly displaced during 1948 or 1967, still hold the keys to their former homes in the hope that they will one day reclaim them.

We were told a story by young members of the Freedom Theatre, who are travelling with us on the ride, as we stood in an open air theatre within the camp.

wall & turretAbout a year ago, the Freedom Theatre actors came to the theatre to perform a play for the children in the camp, about a man and his sheep living under the obstacles of occupation.

During the performance, Israeli troops entered the camp and fired tear gas into the theatre. The actors and children ran choking, eyes streaming, but then decided as a group to return and continue the performance, despite and in defiance of the attack.

The actors told us that for this second leg of the performance, the young audience were the most attentive and engaged that they had experienced.

freedom riders

Some of the freedom bus participants in the theatre beside the wall


The struggle to preserve life, heritage and Battir Village

Hassan’s story – Sybil, Tim and Ciar visited Battir, near Bethlehem, during some free time.

Battir is a village between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It’s close to Deir Yassin, scene of the most notorious massacre of Palestinians by the Zionist terrorist groups in 1948.
The village and its valley are beautiful – Roman aqueducts, elaborate terracing and an Iron Age site.

Battir photo

The Ottomans built a railway from Jerusalem to Jaffa which loops around the valley close to the village and across its lands. Hassan, our friend in Battir, told us that the railway – you can still see the old Battir station – meant that the village population has always been particularly well educated and well travelled.

In ‘48 the 12 villagers who stayed put whilst others fled from the advancing Zionist army managed with huge ingenuity to make the village look as though it was still inhabited. They put candles in every house and hung out washing everywhere. They even walked around at night with sticks pretending to be Arab army soldiers.

pic with Hassan
Tim, Hassan, Ciar and Sybil in Battir

They succeeded in having the armistice line drawn far enough away to include all their land, and they claim to be the only Palestinian village where refugees were able to return from the camps in 1949.

The armistice line was eventually drawn so that Battir people could access their land, including the land which was beyond the railway line – on condition that the railway was not attacked.

It has not been attacked once in the 67 years since the Naqba, despite daily Israeli trains passing through to this day.

In the early 2000s the Israelis planned to run the apartheid wall very close to the village, blocking the land and the landscape. Villagers began a lengthy and expensive legal challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court to stop it, without much hope to begin with.

Meanwhile a group, including Hassan, who is an engineer, began to create a dossier of maps and documents, starting from the British Mandate maps of the 1920s. They recorded the history, the archaeology, land ownership, available water, agriculture and wildlife.
This won them the 2011 Melina Mercouri prize for Cultural Landscape.

Tim Battir sketch

In the same year Palestine was admitted to UNESCO and the group of villagers, including the elected mayor and the town council pushed the Palestine Authority (PA) to apply for Endangered World Heritage status for Battir.

They were disgusted that the PA preferred to promote the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – as a major tourist attraction it’s hardly endangered! Battir, with its struggle against the apartheid wall, was a much more significant political cause.

The John Kerry ‘peace process’ farce coincided with this Endangered World Heritage application which meant that the PA was expected to suspend all international negotiations as a precondition. Although, of course, at the same time it did not inhibit Israel with its land grabbing settlements.

Finally in 2014, Battir got its World Heritage status – but the vote, in Doha was nail bitingly close.

This of course had an impact on the Supreme Court case – Israel would not dare to put its wall through a UNESCO site. So eventually they won.

A courageous and clever campaign – Battir is now a major destination option in Palestine’s young tourism industry with well organised walking trails and a guest house.

House demolitions: ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem

The Freedom Ride took a day off today, so Mary Brodin took a trip to East Jerusalem and the site of two house demolitions. Here’s her report:

Two houses were built on this site in Ash-Shayyah on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. One was demolished ten years ago, the other two weeks ago.

The land has been owned by the same Palestinian family for centuries but the Israelis have ruled that the current owner requires a permit to build as it is designated Area C (under full Israeli civil and security control since the Oslo Accords signed in 1995).

But only 5% of permit applications are successful and the process costs 200,000 shekels (£40,000).

bulldozer opt 1
The site in East Jerusalem housed two homes over the past ten years – both demolished by the Israelis

That makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians to build legally so they have no alternative but to build it ‘illegally’.

If they were to go through the legal channels the house has to be deemed part of a district Masterplan and the Masterplan for Ash-Shayyah is the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes to expand the Jewish cemetery.

So Palestinians have no option but to take the risk of building a house without a permit, not knowing when the demolition order will come.

Once demolition is notified it can take some years before it actually takes place, leaving the owners in a constant state of worry and insecurity. Meanwhile the homeowners are periodically fined 5,000 shekels (£1,000) making it a lucrative business to keep the house owner waiting.

house demolition rubble opt 1
What’s left of the family’s second home.

The Palestinian owners then have two options: demolish it themselves or an uncertain wait for the Israelis to do it for them – the latter being the best of a bad choice.

When the time comes no prior notice is given. The demolition crew typically arrive before 5am – backed-up by around 50 police officers despite knowing there will be minimum resistance.

The police surround the house, holding hands in a ring. The owners are given exactly 15 minutes to grab what they can and leave forcing them to leave most of their possessions behind.

To add insult to injury, the house owners are sent the bill for the bulldozer – 5,000 shekels (£1,000).

Israel demolishes about 200 homes in Area C each year.