In Palestine solidarity circles the debate around the pro-Israel lobby often focuses on the chicken-or-the-egg problem: are Western governments supportive of Israel because the lobby is so influential, or does the lobby only seem influential because governments are so supportive of Israel?
A focus on this question neglects another, more crucial, aspect of the debate: how can we win? How can the tide be turned against Western governments’ support for Israel?
In April, a Palestinian political and religious leader won an important victory in the British judicial system. Sheikh Raed Salah’s successful appeal against deportation gives us a glimpse of how to answer this question.
In the Upper Tier Immigration Tribunal, Sheikh Raed won his case, with Judge Mark Ockelton ruling that “there is no lawful basis” for Home Secretary Theresa May to implement an exclusion order she had imposed secretly on him.
Ockelton wrote of May’s argument that Salah should be deported from the country, that the tribunal considered it “to be very weak,” because she was “under a misapprehension as to the facts” and that “she was misled” by advisors.
The case (which I covered extensively for The Electronic Intifada) was a matter of principle for the sheikh. Unlike most appeals against deportation, Salah was eager to return to his home country. It was the manner of his departure which was important. Had he agreed to go along with deportation it could have been interpreted as an indirect admission of guilt; more importantly, it would have given the Israeli government another legal pretext to pursue its vendetta against him.
Salah had arrived in Britain in June 2011 to speak to British audiences about various political and humanitarian topics. His meetings included a private gathering in the House of Lords, hosted by Baroness Jenny Tonge. Part way through his well-advertised speaking tour, he was arrested, without warning, on the night of Tuesday 28 June. He had been due to speak the following day at a public meeting in Parliament on the subject of Jerusalem, organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
In an arrest later ruled wrongful detention by the High Court, Salah was taken by UK Border Agency officers to jail. They were acting on behalf of May, who had apparently banned Salah from the country on 26 June, although there was a slight problem: no one in May’s department told Salah or any of the organisers of his tour about the ban. In court, UKBA officials and lawyers admitted that Salah had done nothing illegal by entering the country.
But there was another, even greater problem: the Home Secretary’s ban was based on deeply flawed, even fabricated, evidence. This is why the judge ultimately ruled she had been misled.
The first item of the banning order was an accusation reported in the Israeli press that Salah had written an anti-Semitic poem. In court, this was thoroughly debunked. The original Arabic poem was produced in evidence. It seems that the Jerusalem Post maliciously added the words “You Jews” where they did not appear in the original, in order to smear him as an anti-Semite. Even government lawyers later had to admit that the anti-Semitic poem accusation was not true.
Salah spent almost three weeks in British jails, before being released on bail pending his appeal against deportation. He then spent 10 months living in North West London under stringent bail conditions. He had to wear an electronic tag, report daily to police and observe a 6pm to 9am curfew. Perhaps most onerous of all, Salah was barred from speaking to the public. This condition also prevented him from speaking to the press.
Although Sheikh Salah could have left this virtual house arrest at any time by agreeing to be deported back to Palestine, this was never an option for him. He understood the political stakes right from the start.
Soon after his arrest, right-wing Israeli parliamentarian Alex Miller tried to build support for his so-called “Raed Salah Bill”. The newspaper called Israel Hayom quoted Miller: “If the British government refuses entry for this individual… there is no reason why Israel should allow him and his kind to enjoy such activities either. (MK Ben-Ari urges Britain not to release Sheikh Salah,” 30 June). Miller is a member of the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, and lives on an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Conspiracy or mistake?
According to one confidential UKBA document I have seen, it is clear that the British government was aware that Sheikh Salah had not been informed of the ban. An airline information alert issued and dated 24 June said that Salah has “not yet been notified of his exclusion”. The Risk And Liaison Overseas Network (RALON, a UKBA department) document included Salah’s picture, passport number and other details, noting that he was “expected to travel to the United Kingdom imminently (within the next two weeks)”.
In a confidential letter, faxed at exactly the same time, RALON official Moira McDougall asked Heathrow immigration authorities to “serve the alert aside on EL AL”, the Israeli national airline.
The final page in the three-page fax is another letter from the UKBA’s RALON addressed to “EL AL, TEL AVIV, Via London Heathrow”. It asks for the alert to be “disseminated by your staff and agents operating in Tel Aviv as a matter of urgency”.
The 24th June 2011 was a Friday, and the fax is timed in the afternoon. The Jewish weekend in Israel begins on Friday afternoon, so a likely scenario here seems to be that the message was neglected over the weekend. Nevertheless, Israel does not entirely grind to a halt over the Sabbath, so it seems strange that the urgent message would have been neglected entirely.
However, it is now known that Salah actually travelled on a British Airways flight, which might explain why he seems to have been missed.
Still, the Israelis might well have wanted him to have been arrested and deported from the UK. Then, portraying him as a criminal, they would have a new pretext to continue their campaign against him.
As the leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, Salah has long been a target for the Israeli authorities. Because of his leadership of demonstrations against the Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem, the authorities view him in a very similar light to other Palestinian leaders’ peaceful popular resistance. Because Salah is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, they cannot simply throw him into jail with little more than a military trial in an occupation kangaroo court, as they do to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.
Israeli intelligence agencies have waged a campaign of dirty tricks against Salah over the years. In July 2010, Zionist fanatic and Kahanist settler Chaim Pearlman released recordings of a Shabak officer trying to persuade him to assassinate the sheikh. A press release from Salah’s office published by MEMO lists other events in the Israeli campaign against him.
In May 2010, after the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara and the rest of the humanitarian Freedom Flotilla, Salah alleged that Israeli forces had tried to assassinate him. One of the Turkish victims, Ibrahim Bilgen, bore a remarkable likeness to Salah.
So, with a track record of such Israeli conspiracies against Salah, one might ask if the UKBA warning was deliberately ignored by the Israelis. We can’t be sure, but we do know that there was an Israeli role in the plot to have Salah banned, as I showed writing for The Electronic Intifada.
The pro-Israel lobby and the Salah case
Whether it was a mistake or a conspiracy on the part of the Israelis must remain a matter of speculation, unless any new evidence comes to light. Nevertheless, the case as a whole does teach us a key lesson about the pro-Israel lobby in the UK: it is not invincible and can be defeated. Even since Peter Oborne’s landmark 2009 Dispatches film Inside the Israel Lobby, things have changed and the momentum is no longer on the side of the lobbyists.
As the partly successful campaign against Jenny Tonge earlier this year shows, the pro-Israel lobby has lost little of its influence. What does seem to be shifting in mainstream political circles, though, is a willingness to listen to Palestinian narratives.
Ian Lucas, Labour’s shadow minister for the Middle East, and a Labour Friend of Israel, must have felt that it was a good career move for him to go on a recent Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding (CAABU) delegation to the West Bank. That speaks volumes, as does the fact that he addressed the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East annual reception in May.
MEMO’s Shazia Arshad, who is an executive committee member of Labour Friends of Palestine, told me recently: “If you look back ten years, or even five years ago, the issue of Palestine wasn’t mainstream. But more than that it was a bit scary” and perceived as a fringe left-wing issue. “Now,” she added, “there are politicians who are not afraid of talking about Palestine.”
The Salah case is another example. A few years ago, it would probably have been unthinkable for him to enter Britain because, according to internal Foreign and Commonwealth Office emails I’ve seen, “The FCO in Israel has also confirmed that SALAH is considered to be an extremist”. The Israeli government opinion, it seems, is no long taken at face value.
Although pro-Israel bloggers like neo-con Michael Weiss (who expresses his support for Syria by drafting a plan to bomb it) and Telegraph hack Andrew Gilligan did their best to smear Salah by spreading now utterly discredited lies about him, the Palestinian sheikh was ultimately vindicated by the courts and returned home of his own free will.
True, it is a disgrace that it took a long court battle to achieve that outcome. The Community Security Trust – CST did their best to have Salah deported, but ultimately they failed. Despite its charitable remit stipulating that the CST is purely about fighting anti-Semitism, the Salah case brought to light the group’s pro-Israel agenda, as well as its strong links to Israeli state agencies.
Reading through internal government department communications with the organisation, it’s laughable how desperate the CST was to dig out even the most tenuous rumour to use against Salah. Echoing Israeli propaganda, the mere suggestion of “links” between Salah and the Turkish charity IHH was something that could potentially be used against him in court, the CST argued; government lawyers apparently disagreed.
Also in court, it was noticeable that the FCO’s legal team tried to distance itself from the CST, with Neil Sheldon QC arguing time and time again that the CST was just one of many sources the government consulted. He struggled to prove this, and the UKBA had to admit that the CST was a primary source of information and “evidence” against Sheikh Salah. These are all signs of desperation within the pro-Israel lobby.
It is true that Theresa May seemed to have decided to ban Salah only 17 minutes after the CST sent its report on Salah to the government, but it’s also true that, looking at the wider context of the email discussion, the government was already hostile to the idea of Salah entering the country and approached the CST to provide a fig leaf.
In an email from the FCO’s counter-terrorism department two days earlier, Asif Siddiquee sent a link to a Harry’s Place article (titled “The Blood Libel and Parliament”) to contacts at the Home Office and the Department For Communities and Local Government. He had to admit that Salah’s statements were “not particularly UB [unacceptable behaviour]”.
Ultimately what the Raed Salah case proves is this. With enough determination, the pro-Israel lobby can be defeated. As it resorts to more and more nakedly false propaganda, the Palestinian narrative will win more and more battles against it, and truth will out.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.