Using the clumsiest of methods, Britain has sleepwalked into a high-profile political imbroglio in its relations with the Palestinian people and the Arab world. At the centre of this putrid mess is the arrest and detention of Shaikh Raed Salah. The Conservative-led coalition government has gone to great lengths to depict him as a “hate preacher” who was able to slip through stringent border surveillance and controls to “threaten the public good” in Britain. Obviously, Home Secretary Theresa May did not bank on facing escalating diplomatic and legal fallout from her banning and deportation order. As the right-wing British press bayed with self-righteous horror about Salah’s visit (some as much critical of the UK Border Agency’s alleged ineptitude as of Shaikh Salah himself), mainstream newspapers across the Middle East denounced his arrest and possible deportation unanimously as yet another hideous manoeuvre orchestrated by Israel and enacted by its British lackeys.
Hundreds of reports and articles have been written about the Raed Salah affair across the Middle East. They include pieces in Egypt’s Al Ahram, Jordan’s Al Dustour, Saudi Arabia’s Al Haya, and Lebanon’s Al Safir, to mention a few. The single refrain has been one of disgust at the British government’s action after it allowed itself to be hoodwinked by pro-Israel fanatics in London.
The story of Salah’s arrest was also widely reported by all TV channels and discussed regularly in their news bulletins. Al Jazeera, the most popular and influential of these, covered the story uninterrupted from the beginning. Indeed, the arrest and detention of Raed Salah competed with the Arab revolutions for the main headline slots.
Shaikh Raed’s arrest coincided with a visit to the Middle East by Britain’s Middle East minister, Alistair Burt. When interviewed by Al Jazeera and asked specifically about the arrest his answers were conspicuous by their evasiveness and convoluted nature. As for the normally ubiquitous Foreign Office spokesmen, MEMO’s sources confirm that they were suddenly unavailable to answer calls from Arab news channels. All attempts to contact the Foreign Office for a comment went straight to answering machines from which there have been no responses.
The general consensus of all that has been written to date is that British politicians have misread the situation in the region and are jeopardising quite recklessly the UK’s interests to appease Israel and its untamed ideologues.
Under the title “Does Britain despise the Arabs and Muslims?” the Lebanese newspaper Al Diyar questioned the arrest in London. It pointed out that Shaikh Salah “has been for many years leading efforts to preserve the Arab, Palestinian and human heritage of Jerusalem”. He has been a thorn in the side of Israel’s frantic campaign to Judaise the city and alter its religious and demographic character. The paper observed that Raed Salah “did not carry out any terrorist act, nor has he broken any British laws”. It concluded with a simple message to the Cameron government: “if Britain wishes to be seen as a country of law and respect for human rights, it must release Raed Salah immediately.”
Abdul Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Al Quds al Arabi, wrote a scathing attack on the British government. He pointed out that instead of arresting Salah, who they obviously regarded somewhat erroneously as a soft target, it would have been more in keeping with the values of universal justice and rule of law had the government arrested Ehud Barak, the war crimes suspect, who authorised the use of white phosphorus bombs to incinerate hundreds of Palestinians in 2008-09.
Atwan notes, however, that few are surprised by this disgraceful action because 80% of Conservative Members of Parliament are Friends of Israel and benefit from its bottomless pit of political largesse. He concluded his comment by thanking Raed Salah for exposing the extraordinary hypocrisy of the British government and its false claims of respect for democracy and human rights.
In the Jordanian daily Al Dustour, Yasir Za’atara gave a poignant explanation for the arrest. Israel, he wrote, claims that London has become the centre for what it calls “the global campaign to ‘delegitimize’ it, and as such has decided to pressure the British government to end all activities opposing [Israel’s] nefarious policies”.
According to Za’atara, Salah’s arrest underscores “the depth of Israeli unease with his growing influence”. Having failed to silence him at home, despite frequent imprisonment on trumped-up charges (and, it is alleged, assassination attempts), they have now, he claimed, turned to the British to do their dirty work.
Many of the reports in the Arab media wonder why Raed Salah was targeted in this vicious manner. The answer, explained some journalists, is because he is a unifying figure in the Palestinian community. This is self-evident from the number of statements supportive of the Shaikh from across the political spectrum in Palestine, most notably the simultaneous condemnations by rival Fatah and Hamas prime ministers Salam Fayyad and Ismail Haniyeh, despite their well-known political differences. Many in the West, including Britain, have long sought to keep the Palestinian people divided. Salah symbolises Palestinian attempts to realise national unity and reconciliation, “hence the arrests and attempts to smear his character”.
The fact that Shaikh Salah was held under immigration laws raised further questions in the Arab media about the motive behind holding him initially in Paddington Green high security police station. This, some argued, was a cynical attempt to convey the impression that the case was related to terrorism offences. Many columnists were bewildered about the authorities’ three-day wait before proceeding to arrest him; he entered the UK openly on Saturday 25th June, and it was late on the following Tuesday evening when he was arrested. Speculation is rife that the British government was hoping that he would incite the audiences at his speeches to hatred, as the pro-Israel lobby claims he does. Sadly for them, he doesn’t, and didn’t. Hate and violence have never been part of the Shaikh’s repertoire.
Raed Salah may have been adjudged guilty by the self-appointed judges, juries and frustrated executioners of Britain’s right-wing press, but he was exonerated unanimously by the myriad of political persuasions in the Arab media. He still has faith in the British judicial system, which is why he has decided to fight his case in a British court of law. Well before his arrival in the UK, he instructed his lawyers to begin legal proceedings against those who had defamed him and assassinated his character. Hence, any attempt to deport him before the due process is completed would be seen not only as an act of contempt but also an attempt by a crazed political clique to obstruct the course of justice. Neither is good for Britain’s image overseas. At a time when David Cameron and his ministers are seeking to increase the spheres of British influence, especially in the Middle East, he would be foolish to under-estimate the strength of feeling against what his Home Secretary has done.