On 25 June 2011, the celebrated Palestinian social, political and civil rights leader Sheikh Raed Salah arrived at London’s Heathrow airport at the invitation of the independent media research and information organisation, the Middle East Monitor (MEMO). The purpose of his visit was to take part in a widely publicised ten-day programme of speaking engagements across the UK. During his visit, Sheikh Raed was scheduled to address the British public and parliamentarians on issues related to the Middle East and the plight of Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Three days into his trip, Sheikh Raed was arrested and detained by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and then told that he would face deportation.
Following Sheikh Raed’s arrest, it was claimed by the Home Office that he had been subject to a UK exclusion order at the time of his entry into the country as the Secretary of State for the Home Department (the Home Secretary), Theresa May, had deemed his presence to be “not conducive to the public good”. This assessment was made on the basis of alleged anti-Semitic statements and/or statements that support violence. On learning that Sheikh Raed was, in fact, in Britain, Mrs May personally sanctioned his immediate arrest and detention. However, neither Sheikh Raed, the Israeli authorities, the airline carrier that brought him to the UK nor immigration officers at Heathrow airport had been informed of his alleged proscribed status. No official opposition to his visit was ever made and there was no attempt to prevent his entry at the border.
The rash decision taken by the Home Secretary to detain such a high-profile and well-respected Palestinian figure unleashed an international storm of criticism and condemnation from across the political, religious and social spectrum. The decision, which appears to have been made as a result of a highly-orchestrated, libellous campaign by right-wing pro-Israel organisations and lobbyists, was viewed widely as a political move aimed at curbing freedom of speech and limiting public access to the Palestinian narrative on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The British government’s decision reflected a 2002 decision by the Israeli Interior Ministry to bar Sheikh Raed from travelling to prevent his voice being heard on the world stage. This cast the British government in a very negative light, particularly given its moral and historic responsibility to protect the rights of the Palestinian community in Israel pursuant to the Balfour Declaration. It also lent considerable weight to accusations that Israel and the Zionist Lobby pull the strings of the British government with a resultant pro-Israel bias. It was widely believed that the Sheikh Raed affair would result in irreparable damage to British relations with Muslim and Arab states.
Moreover, the decision to detain Sheikh Raed was wide open to legal challenge on the grounds of wrongful detention and he has vowed to contest the order for his deportation through the British courts in order to clear his name and vindicate the justice of the Palestinians cause. The court case is ongoing.