An alternate version of this piece can be found here.
Last month I attended the celebration of Nelson Mandela International Day at Kelvingrove Museum. This was a celebration of his legacy, the dramatic changes which have occurred in South Africa over the last 20 years with the end of apartheid, and the small but important role Glasgow played in the downfall of apartheid. Mr. Mandela visited Glasgow in 1993 to receive the Freedom of the City, which he was awarded in 1981. Glasgow was the first city in the world to bestow this honour on the anti-apartheid leader. It took this action when Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress were considered terrorists by many people, including the Thatcher government, as well as the US President, Ronald Reagan. These two leaders, along with many others, provided support to the criminal regime in South Africa as a bulwark against a perceived Soviet threat. Yet, many others saw the South African regime for what it was, and campaigned tirelessly for its removal. Glasgow’s support of this campaign is now seen as prescient.
I was reminded of this when I heard that Glasgow City Council intended to fly the Palestinian flag over the City Chambers on Friday 8 August in support of ‘the innocent people who are being hurt in Gaza.’ Given the extremely fraught and sensitive nature of the situation, this obviously set off a firestorm of controversy and accusations of bias. The Glasgow Jewish Representative Council said it was ‘angered and hurt’ by this decision. Given the sensitivity and inevitable offense caused, was this the right decision?
Let us look at a few facts. Palestine has been occupied by Israel for decades. There is little controversy over this. Even though Israel tries to claim that it no longer has control over Gaza, this flies in the face of the fact that it controls most of Gaza’s borders – including access by sea – decides who goes in and out, decides what goods go in and out, and reserves the right to invade militarily or assassinate people it deems terrorists. This is the functional equivalent of occupation, even if it does not maintain a permanent on the ground presence. Israel periodically invades Gaza. It claims this is to protect itself from terrorists, but in fact it is intended to maintain the occupation. Should Hamas be firing rockets willy nilly into Israel where they might kill innocent civilians? Of course not, but the damage these rockets have done is minimal compared to the damaged inflicted by Israel over and over again on Gaza. Does Gaza (and the rest of Palestine) have a right to resist occupation? Undoubtedly. Unfortunately it has few ways to actively resist. And this is one of the things missing from most of the coverage – and indeed from groups who take offense at any criticism of the actions taken by the State of Israel. If the UK had been occupied by the Nazi regime during World War II would the people of Britain have had a right to resist? Of course. I am not making a comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany, but the broader point is certainly apt. Certainly the French had a right to resist the Nazi occupation.
Further, how many people have been killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza? According to the website Mondoweiss, the answer is 40. This is not 40 in the most recent round of attacks. This is 40 from 2001 until the present. 27 of these were civilians and 13 were military. In the most recent ‘war’ – I use this term advisedly since there has been an ongoing war against the Palestinians for decades, sometimes it just does not seem like it – the figure is 13. All but two (or three) of these were military targets, which would be legitimate targets in a war – including a war of resistance against an occupation.
How many people have been killed in Gaza during the most recent phase of the ongoing conflict? Close to 1900, most of whom have been civilians. Israel claims that it scrupulously avoids targeting civilians, but the numbers demonstrate otherwise. So 1900 vs. 13 – a 146 to 1 ratio. 146 Gazans have been killed for every Israeli killed. And the proportion of civilian deaths is vastly higher in Gaza, even though Israel claims to target only Hamas while asserting that Hamas targets civilians. It is clear that civilians are bearing the brunt of the ongoing conflict which aims to reinforce the occupation.
Who is in need of solidarity? I think the answer is clear, and this only barely touches on the criminal occupation of broader Palestine for many decades. Should Glasgow City Council be flying the Palestinian flag? I say yes – and proudly. The Gazans – and Palestinians more generally – are in desperate need of support and solidarity. Large numbers of people are being slaughtered in a grossly disproportionate war which is not going to solve anything. Even if the tunnels are destroyed, they will be rebuilt, and more generally the underlying situation – illegal occupation – will still be there. There is no military solution to this situation.
What about the criticism from the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council? Is the Council taking sides? Yes, it is siding with the people of Gaza who are under illegal occupation and disproportionate collective punishment. I would think that anyone of conscience – whether Jew or not – would want to condemn the slaughter of innocent civilians. Further, being Jewish does not necessarily mean that one supports everything that the State of Israel does. There are many Jews who do not support the actions in Gaza or the wider occupation, and believe that the occupation is bad for Israel. And this should be a clear point – criticism of the State of Israel does not equate to anti-semitism, as so many of Israel’s extreme supporters assert, in the same way that when I criticise the US – the country of my birth – for its excesses in the so-called ‘war on terror’ I am not anti-American.
As to the criticism that this is just ‘gesture politics’ and will not lead to peace, Glasgow’s actions in 1981 could be described as just ‘gesture politics’, athough they were part of an expanding wave of ‘gestures’ which eventually forced the collapse of the apartheid regime. Will this one act lead directly to peace in the Middle East? Of course not. But this one act of conscience will hopefully combine with an ever increasing number of acts of conscience, including the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, to put pressure on Israel to bring its slaughter of innocents to a conclusion and end the occupation.