“Stop the War” coalition has been involved with doing work around Palestine for a long time, and has now set up an emergency organising committee involving fifteen different organisations to coordinate the work done in Scotland. They are behind the collection of money and aid sent over to Palestine, and, of course, the demonstrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh that were attended by thousands of those wanting to express solidarity for people in Gaza. I talked to one of their members, Josh Brown, about the conflict, its media coverage, reactions of the international community, and what each of us in Scotland, or anywhere else, can do to help.
Josh grew up in America, where, he explains, the confusion created by biased media coverage has caused many Americans to think that Palestinians are occupying Israel: they have it completely backwards. He believes the situation is not as bad in the UK, but the media coverage is still very poor in representing the situation for Palestinian people, and mainstream media has been very biased against Palestine.
Many demonstrations tried to highlight the BBC lack of coverage from Palestine, but Josh thinks that the BBC follows the line of the government: the UK government is close friends with Israel, with such parliamentary groups as Labour Friends of Israel, and Conservative Friends of Israel. If the government suddenly became very pro-Palestinian, he imagines the BBC’s coverage would improve, but he does not see that happening soon.
The one mainstream exception in the UK media has been Channel 4’s coverage. Jon Snow has done a remarkable job: one could see that visiting Gaza profoundly affected him and he has honestly reported what he saw, challenging the Israeli government officials to the best of his ability and exposing the contradictions and the lies that they use to promote the Israeli side of the story.
That side of the story tries to justify the killing of men, women and children, blaming everything on the Palestinian people or on Hamas. They never want to talk about the fact that the Hamas was the elected government of the people of Gaza in the last election and that Hamas and Fatah, the two ruling parties in Palestine had come to peace with one another and made an agreement to work together in negotiations.
“That, I think, was one of the main reasons why Israel started its most recent war on Gaza, because as soon as Hamas and Fatah are working together, Israel is forced to go back to the negotiating table, and they do not want that. The Zionists in the Israeli government do not want to negotiate with Palestinians, they do not want Palestinians to have a state, and they do not want Palestinians to be in the Holy Land anymore, at all. So when Hamas and Fatah came to an agreement together, that was, I believe, one of the key motivating factors in Israel attacking Gaza, to break that unity and try and stay away from the negotiating table.”
Many of those who support Israel or try to remain neutral on the topic, talk about how people in Gaza are notified when their houses are about to be attacked, and about Hamas using civilians as human shields. When asked about it, Josh tells me of when he visited Palestine, and was in a house when the phone rang, with the Israeli army on the other end saying that residents have 5 minutes to leave the house. When civilians who had done nothing wrong know the house is going to be destroyed, some families insist on staying to save their homes because they would not have the money or the materials to build the house again. Because of the blockade, there is no access to concrete, wood, or iron, so people’s houses are extremely precious to them, and in 5 or 10 minutes they would not be able to take all of the precious things with them. They attempt to save the history of their family.
When it comes to Hamas using civilian populations as human shields, Josh asserts that as a ridiculous accusation: Gaza is completely blockaded, people are not allowed to come and go from there, it is the size of North and South Uist combined (139 sq mi), and in that area, there are 1.8 million Palestinians living. Almost every inch of land there is populated, there is no such thing as a war zone separate from where people live.
“People are so packed into this small place that when Israel bombs Gaza they should be answering for what is, in crude terms, bombing fish in a barrel: there is nowhere for them to go to avoid being hit, and you can see that with the death toll that is there, there are over one thousand Palestinians dead now, at least one third of those people are children. The average age in Gaza is 17 years old, so the Israelis know that they are going to be killing civilians, they know that they are going to be killing children, but they are willing to do that in order to stay away from the negotiating table, and in order to try to hurt Hamas. They are willing to kill children to do that. Being one of the most advanced militaries in the world, they are well aware of what they are doing.”
When I ask whether the international community has been doing enough in response to the events, Josh points out that while Israel always talks about how Hamas does not recognise Israel’s right to exist, Palestine as a place and as a group of people that are looking for recognition, that are looking for a nation, has been completely ignored until very recently, and progress is needed. For example, Palestine received official recognition from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and the UN General Council has always been in majority supportive of Palestine. However, the UN Security Council seems to veto anything that helps Palestine while allowing Israel to get away with violations of various conventions: calling for Palestinian right to return, or saying that building settlements in occupied territories is illegal. American support helps to veto these things, so getting past the block and letting the international community decide more democratically would result in Palestine gaining a much faster recognition in the world.
However, one thing that Josh says he has learned having travelled a lot of countries in the world, including many Middle Eastern countries, is that you always have to make a distinction between the ideas and the opinions of the people, and the ideas and the opinions of their government.
“I would not want to be held responsible for George W. Bush, even though I lived in America at that time, and I think people living in Scotland certainly would not want to be held responsible for the ideas and the actions of Tony Blair. You always see more progress and more potential amongst the people, amongst the citizens, than you do amongst the governments.”
The governments, he believes, get too caught up in wrangling over power, money, trade, arms deals and geopolitical maneuverings, whereas people think as human beings and have sympathy for the suffering of others, wherever they may live. That is often the starting point for building solidarity and for building demonstrations to support people like in Palestine, especially when there is a massive onslaught like there is at the moment against people of Gaza. Ordinary people, being decent, good, kind-hearted, and understanding, caring about their family, their friends, their community, will extend that support to people in other countries who are in need. There is a natural tendency for people to be supportive and to offer solidarity, so activists try to coordinate and channel that support into large demonstrations and activity that allows people in Gaza to see to see that they are not alone.
“People in Scotland, using our local example here, support them, and we are thinking of them, and when they hurt we hurt, and we want the war to end, we want peace.”
He sees a general solidarity in Scotland for Palestinian people, despite people not necessarily having a lot of information about the details.
“Most people don’t really know what it means to be an occupied land or to be an occupied people, and if you don’t know what that means it has a huge impact on what you think the solution can be for peace in the Middle East, or for peace in the Holy Land.”
What people forget is that despite the Holy Land, the area of Israel and Palestine, being the home to the three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, making it a very contentious place, the area has a long history of people living together in peace, people from all the different religions and different backgrounds. The latter is what gives him, and many others, hope for a peaceful future as well.
As Josh speaks positively of Scotland and mentions how the opinions of the government might dictate the media coverage, I ask him if things would change if Scotland became independent. He answers with a firm belief and hope: according to him, Scotland has already proven that it has a more progressive stance in support of Palestine than most Western nations, and it was, after all, the first country in the world to recognise Nelson Mandela as hero. He tells me about a meeting the Gaza emergency coordinating committee had with the Minister for External Affairs Humza Yousaf, where they spoke to him about what the Scottish government could do to further improve on the position for Palestine.
“He sat and listened very respectfully to our suggestions, and he will meet with us again soon to discuss the government’s response. I think it is quite unique, I cannot imagine getting an audience with the foreign minister at Westminster as a group of left organisations that are pro-Palestinian, I cannot imagine ever getting that opportunity at Westminster, but we have had that here in Scotland and we hope to see further progress for Palestine. That is why I think that independent Scotland would be better than most countries.”
One of his ideas is establishing a Palestinian embassy in Scotland: something that he admits might sounds like a small, tokenistic, or merely symbolic thing, but would allow breaking the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and America, one that was established between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and reinforced between Tony Blair and George Bush in the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. The establishment of a Palestinian embassy could separate those two paths and help start Scotland on a path towards being a country that focuses on making friends rather than intimidating enemies.
“One of the main reasons why people support Scottish independence is that you get rid of Trident nuclear weapons. Scotland is moving in a direction towards decommissioning the weapons; Israel has nuclear weapons but refuses to have them inspected and gets away with because of support from America. At Westminster, Theresa May has recently given herself new powers to make British people stateless, to strip them of their British citizenship if they go to Syria, we want to go in the opposite direction of that and we want to recognise the stateless people of Palestine. An independent Scotland could set itself apart from the pro-war, pro-nuclear, pro-American policies of Westminster and establish a path towards peace and send hospital ships instead of war ships. This is the kind of foreign policy that means you do not have to spend very much money on a military; you can spend money on food aid, on medical aid, and sending doctors abroad instead of sending soldiers. It is a very different way of conducting yourself as a nation.”
The demonstrations that took place in Glasgow and Edinburgh were initiated by a small core of people, and Josh is one of them. In his words: when you see what is happening to the people in Gaza, you need to do something; you could sit in your house, cry and be broken-hearted about it, but that would not help anyone, so the immediate instinct is to think what you can do despite living so far away.
The people of Gaza are blockaded inside an open-air prison since 2007 by the Israeli government and the Israeli military, but they are very connected by the Internet, so when seeing photos and videos from demonstrations they know they are not alone, that they are not suffering in silence, and that people are angry at their suffering. We have to help whatever small way we can, and that is also important for us as individuals. Sometimes a demonstration is the best you can do, and then maybe you can gather some money or medical supplies to help, maybe some people will go there to help in person: it is just trying to find something to do so that we do not feel powerless and so that Palestinian people know that we do not agree with our government, or the BBC ignoring what is happening there.
And people do, indeed, try to express such growing discontent: the first demonstration in Glasgow, held on the 5th of July, was attended by about 250 people, which was already surprising taking into account the extremely short notice. There were about 2,000 or 2,500 people there on the 12th of July, and on the 19th, the numbers went over 4,000. Josh remembers how nobody seemed to notice the rain; it was a fantastic, heart-warming view.
Thousands of people have come out to the streets in Tel Aviv, the largest city in Israel, to show the same discontent. Josh finds that crucially important and inspirational, and says we have to give due recognition to the Israeli people who stand up against war and call for peace and reconciliation of Palestine, because it is not easy for them. At the demonstration in Tel Aviv, there was a small counter demonstration: the people who were in favour of the Israeli occupation, force and the war were chanting “death to the leftists”. Despite such level of violence and intimidation they are facing, a small but important group of people inside Israel are committed to peace, reconciliation, and living together with Palestinians.
Outside Israel, there are also many Jewish voices for Palestine and against Zionism. The media might try to conflate Zionism and Judaism, but Zionism is a very small minority ideology amongst many different viewpoints of the Jewish people. The pro-Palestinian Jews that Josh personally knows would say that Zionism is the biggest enemy of the Jews, because instead of making a safe haven for Jews in Israel it has made the most dangerous place in the world for Jews, and the worst representation of Judaism as something that is about colonialism, occupation, war, violence, racism, segregation and apartheid. Such manifestations of Zionism are the complete, pure opposite of what left, liberal Judaism is about.
As an example of proud Jewish activism, Josh mentions the Jewish people that were a part of the American Civil Rights movement, went to the Southern states and helped to win voting right for black Americans. The same kind of Jewish activists today are campaigning against Zionism and for peace with Palestine. This goes against the belief that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about Jews versus Muslims. The media and governments love to use religion as demarcation in conflicts, and probably play a large role in creating it as a line of difference, but this, imposed from outside, is just an example of divide and conquer strategy.
“Palestinian people are Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of no faith, that is another thing that the media never wants to talk about. The first Intifada, the first uprising against the Israeli occupation, was led by the Christian community in Palestine, centred around Beit Sahour and places around Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Second Intifada was led by Muslim Palestinians. We cannot simplify it to being about Judaism versus Islam because it is more mixed than that, and people used to live together, side by side in peace before this sectarian religious divide was amplified, and used to justify colonialism.”
Having recognised how important demonstrations can be, Josh also talks about something that is more than a symbolic act: boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS. He compares the situation in Palestine to that of South Africa in the past: there, BDS was extremely important in helping to end Apartheid regime as the international community was able to put a massive amount of economic and political pressure. In the situation of occupied Palestine, it is even more important, because Palestinian people have been removed from the Israeli economy and deprived from the economic power that South African workers had. They cannot hurt the government by going on strike. BDS is also about political pressure, because when the number of people, organisations, and countries supporting Palestinians is exposed, it forces the Israeli government to either respond, or intensify the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.
Cultural boycott is taking place at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, too: shows by two theatre and dance companies got cancelled as a result. They receive Israeli government funding, and Josh believes Israel gives money to such projects so it can create some positive PR that would counterbalance what they are doing in Gaza. Cultural ambassadors, so to speak, come here to redeem the image of Israel, and so cultural boycott exposes that strategy. It is not directed against the artists themselves, Josh emphasises, and he adds that an Israeli stand-up comedian’s shows will not be a part of the boycott since he receives no Israeli government funding, and the boycott is not against Israeli or Jewish artists in general. Cultural boycott is one of the current activities, and there are more demonstrations to come.
“We have to keep demonstrating, to keep raising awareness, until Israel stops attacking Gaza. We need to help make an end to the killing. Whatever small things we can do here, we will keep doing them to the best of our ability.”