“Callous disregard for human lives” and putting the interests of a foreign state — a state which is in violation of countless UN Resolutions — ahead of the interests of the progressive values of the Labour Party are just some of the reasons why Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) has faced condemnation this week. The organisation stoked controversy on Tuesday with a tweet that was denounced widely on social media. The pro-Israel lobby group affiliated to Britain’s main opposition party appeared to take a position on Israel’s killing of Palestinians in Gaza that was identical to that of the ruling right-wing Likud, which was also to the same degree in conflict with the values and polices of the Labour Party.
Reacting to the clashes in Gaza, the LFI said: “Tragic events on the Gazan border; all civilian deaths are regrettable. Hamas must accept responsibility for these events. Their successful attempts to hijack peaceful protest as a cover to attack Israeli border communities must be condemned by all who seek peace in the Middle East.”
The statement by the pro-Israel lobbyists was the LFI’s first on what Amnesty International has called a “bloodbath” and “outrageous human rights violations” committed by Israeli forces that “must be held to account.” The response to its tweet seemed to wrong-foot the group. It went on to adopt a line that looked as if it had been scripted by members of the right-wing Israeli coalition, which includes parties that oppose the two state solution and endorse the annexation of the occupied West Bank.
Indeed, it was hard to distinguish the LFI statement from the comments made by one minister within the Israeli Likud who justified the massacre in Gaza by describing Palestinians as “Nazis”. He too blamed the victims before saying that the number of dead Palestinians “did not indicate anything” because Palestinian protestors were “terrorists” following the orders of a “Nazi” like organisation.
In stark contrast, the Labour Party in Britain took a position that echoed the concerns of the UN and various human rights organisations. In her statement to the House of Commons, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry described the death of Palestinians as a “calculated and deliberate attempt to kill and maim unarmed protestors who pose no threat to the forces on the Gaza border.” The Labour MP said that Palestinian men, women and children were being “shot in the back.”
Explaining the lethal intent of the Israeli soldiers, Thornberry compared the way that animals are killed by hunters using bullets which “mushroom and fragment” to Israeli soldiers using the same ammunition against Palestinian human beings in order to inflict maximum damage on their victims. After calling on Israel to the “stop the vicious slaughter” Thornberry demanded that an independent investigation be launched into the killing, something which was echoed by Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East.
LFI’s move to blame the victims is as far from the values and policies of the Labour Party as US President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to break with international laws and conventions and acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as well as move the American Embassy to the occupied city.
Even the former head of the CIA did not mince his words when it came to naming those responsible for the killings in Gaza. “Deaths in Gaza result of utter disregard of Messers [sic] Trump & Netanyahu for Palestinian rights & homeland…” tweeted John Brennan. He denounced the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and blamed the US President for “destroying” America’s role as a “peacemaker” before calling for the isolation of “extremists”. There is little doubt that he meant Trump and Netanyahu when he blamed “extremists” for the violence and for sabotaging the peace process.
It is normal for organisations affiliated to the Labour Party to “accept the programme, policy and principles of the party.” Although such groups will not always see eye to eye with the parent body, LFI appears to have compromised its position and brought the Labour Party into disrepute by its desire to defend the state of Israel at all costs. In fact, the tweet in question seems to confirm the claim that LFI is primarily a front for the Israeli Embassy in London. LFI members admitted as much to an undercover Aljazeera journalist investigating the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in a programme broadcast in January last year. LFI members said that they worked “really closely” with the embassy and that such cooperation with a foreign state took place “behind the scenes”.
LFI’s role in defending Israel first and promoting Labour values second inevitably placed the organisation on a collision course with Labour members and the party’s Central Office. The lobby group is in the unenviable position of having to defend the indefensible; Israeli society and politics have veered so much to the right that it really should be impossible for members of a party which stands against foreign occupation, racism and violations of international law to offer any support whatsoever to the state or its government. If they do, then they must surely expect to be on the receiving end of accusations that they condone human rights violations and possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Progressive Jewish individuals and organisations in Britain and abroad can see this and have distanced themselves from the actions of the so-called Jewish state, so why hasn’t Labour Friends of Israel?
Individuals close to Labour have told MEMO that the relationship between LFI and the party are strained to the point that some have called for the pro-Israel group to be expelled. It is simply not clear, they said, to what extent LFI can be said to be part of Labour’s admittedly broad church, and to what degree it promotes the interests of the party above those of Israel. Labour MPs who are members of LFI — more than 80 of them — must ask themselves how long they can continue to give their support to an organisation that many say has brought the party into disrepute.
Party members insist that no other group affiliated to Labour would be allowed to promote a foreign state as much as LFI gets away with. The fact that Labour Friends of Palestine felt the need to change its name to Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East speaks volumes about the double standards at play.
One member of the Labour Party who is a cross-party advisor on Israel and Palestine, Gary Spedding, told MEMO that he was “deeply disturbed” to have an organisation affiliated to the party which abandons the programme, policy and principals of Labour in order to further Israeli impunity and “whitewash crimes committed against largely unarmed civilians.” Spedding revealed details of the letter that he has sent to Labour Central Office in which he accused LFI of violating party rules.
Labour has come under a lot of criticism of late for allegedly failing to address “pockets” of anti-Semitism within its ranks. Just as leader Jeremy Corbyn has recognised that the party needs to cleanse itself of this poisonous trend in time to fight the Conservatives at the next General Election, the whole leadership needs to distance Labour from an organisation that opposes so publicly the values of the political party to which it claims to be affiliated. All Labour members should ask serious questions of those in their ranks who display such callous disregard for human rights and international law. There should be no room within the Labour Party for Labour Friends of Israel, it’s as simple as that.