Sheikh Raed Salah has been the target of a vicious and concerted smear campaign by the pro-Israel lobby in the UK and unfortunately our government has now weighed in to give legitimacy to the systematic persecution of Palestinians on British soil as well.
Sheikh Raed is the Palestinian leader of the largest civil society body in Israel and works with the largest umbrella body of Palestinian organisations, the High Follow Up Committee. As soon as the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) began to publicise the fact that we were inviting Sheikh Raed to the United Kingdom to take part in a series of public and parliamentary speaking engagements, a vicious campaign of demonization began against him in parts of the British media. Pro-Israel bloggers and journalists began to call him an anti-Semite, a hate preacher, and other libellous and defamatory statements were made against him. This is despite the fact that he has never been convicted of anti-Semitism in Israel, has spoken openly in Tel Aviv University, and has repeatedly denied and rejected all of the allegations made against him. Sheikh Raed's solicitors immediately began legal proceedings against several journalists and Sheikh Raed has made it very clear that he was willing to challenge all allegations against him in the British courts.
However, it seems that the pro-Israel apparatus went into overdrive to ensure that he would not get the opportunity to freely and publicly refute these allegations and he was arrested, without warning, late at night on the third day of his stay in the UK. It was later claimed that Home Secretary Theresa May had issued an exclusion order against him banning his entry to the UK. If this was indeed the case however, neither he, nor his lawyers, nor MEMO as his hosts, were ever informed. In fact MEMO and his solicitors called the Home Office before his arrest to clarify his status in the UK and they refused to confirm or deny anything in relation to his particular case.
He did not, as some papers have alluded, sneak into the UK. He flew from Ben Gurion airport straight to Heathrow. He was not stopped or questioned at either end. He came in openly and publicly using his Israeli passport as he has when visiting the UK on several occasions in the past.
The double standards operating here are chilling. While the government is doing its utmost to change the British laws on Universal Jurisdiction to make it easier for suspected Israeli war criminals to visit the UK without the fear of arrest warrants being issued against them, at the same time they are happy to arrest Palestinian leaders who have committed no crime but are here to expose Israeli war crimes and discuss peaceful methods of resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Although the unjustifiable arrest of Sheikh Raed will be challenged on the individual merits of his case this has become about more than just the case of a single man. He represents a much larger issue. The attempted character assassination of Sheikh Raed is typical of the targeting of all prominent Palestinians. He is a spokesperson for the Palestinian people; for the people of East Jerusalem whose homes are routinely demolished; for the Muslims and Christians who are being denied access to their holiest sites of worship; for the native Palestinian residents who are being made homeless in favour of pro-Israel immigrants who come from abroad to usurp their land. He is being treated as a criminal despite having committed no crime.
The shocking treatment of Sheikh Raed will backfire as it is simply exposing the fact that, once again, the British authorities seem willing to do the Israelis' dirty work for them no matter how much it flies in the face of British standards of justice, democracy and free speech. The UK, it seems, now has its first Palestinian political prisoner.
*Dr Hanan Chehata is the press officer for the Middle East Monitor
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.