I never wanted to be a policeman, so it’s still a novelty when a friend greets me with the question “Did you arrest anyone lately?”. Without owning a pair of handcuffs, I have tried to bring two political figures to justice. In February 2011, I invited Avigdor Lieberman to accompany me to a police station, where I had hoped the Israeli foreign minister would be charged with the crime of apartheid. One year earlier, I placed my hand on Tony Blair’s arm and accused him of starting an illegal war against Iraq.
By attempting to put these men under citizen’s arrest, I was following a tradition dating back to medieval Britain, where ordinary people were asked to help apprehend law-breakers by sheriffs. To no surprise, neither attempt was successful: security guards quickly intervened to protect Lieberman and Blair. Yet both drew attention to how scoundrels can masquerade as statesmen.
The first time that I heard of an activist trying to arrest a politician was about 10 years ago when Peter Tatchell confronted Robert Mugabe over the torture of homosexuals in Zimbabwe. While the likelihood of the tactic actually leading to a prosecution is miniscule, it can have a significant impact on public opinion. I am especially pleased that my action against Lieberman led to Israel behind described as an apartheid state in many publications. It is seldom that the words “Israel” and “apartheid” can be read in the same sentence in the mainstream press.
Some Palestine solidarity campaigners have suggested to me lately that an attempt should be made to arrest representatives of the Israeli state every time they travel abroad. It is an idea that I support, not least because the West’s leaders regularly accommodate Israel’s inhumanity.
Nick Clegg’s opportunism offers a nauseating case in point. While in opposition, Clegg wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian in January 2009, urging the then Labour government to “condemn unambiguously Israel’s tactics” against the people of Gaza and to impose an embargo on weapons sales to Israel. Yet in November 2010, Clegg gave a speech to the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (a group within his party), during which he spoke approvingly of the current government’s efforts to amend Britain’s law on universal jurisdiction, which is supposed to allow human rights abusers be tried in Britain regardless of where their crimes were committed. Amendments to the law were vital, Clegg (now deputy prime minister) said, to “avoid accusations based on poorly justified grounds against visitors to the UK.”
There was no doubt that the visitors Clegg had in mind were Israeli politicians, concerned about being arrested if they set foot on British soil. Less than two years earlier, Clegg was arguing that those politicians should be condemned unambiguously. Now he believes they should be free to go shopping in Harrods.
Apartheid has been treated as an offence against humanity by the United Nations since 1973. The UN’s convention against apartheid refers to the domination of one racial group over another. Even before that definition was approved, the racist nature of Israel was underscored by Henrik Verwoerd, South Africa’s prime minister in the 1960s. “The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years,” he said. “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”
Since joining the ruling coalition in 2009, Lieberman and his party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) have made Israeli apartheid even harsher than it had previously been. In late March this year, for example, a “citizenship” bill sponsored by the party passed into law. Clearly directed against the 1.4 million-strong Palestinian minority living inside Israel, it would allow anyone convicted of treason or terrorism to be stripped of their elementary rights. The law is so broad that it can only be interpreted as a bid to snuff out dissent in a country unceasingly depicted by its propagandists as the Middle East’s only democracy.
While the evidence illustrating that Israel is an apartheid state is abundant, our governments refuse to even utter the word apartheid. Absurdly, the European Union deems anyone who calls out Israel as a racist endeavour to be an anti-Semite. The EU’s working definition of anti-Semitism says that describing Israel as racist amounts to anti-Semitism. It is no coincidence that the definition was drawn up in consultation with several Zionist lobby groups, who deliberately conflate criticism of the state of Israel with hatred of Jews in order to scare people of conscience into silence.
Lorna Fitzsimons, a former Labour MP who now runs a lobby outfit called the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), said during 2010: “Public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue.”
Fitzsimons is wrong to be smug. A campaign against boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), coupled with mass public awareness, helped isolate South Africa during the apartheid era and to eventually put an end to white minority rule. There is no reason why BDS cannot also bring down Israeli apartheid as it is designed to put economic pressure on those institutions and companies that profit from the pain of the Palestinians. Once they realise that the occupation of Palestine is bad for business, Israel and its supporters will have to sit up and take notice.
·First published by Ceasefire Magazine (www.ceasefiremagazine.co.uk), 30 March 2011