Pro-Palestine activists slam Israel at Labour conference after Hamas terrorist attack

Ben Jamal and Husam Zomlot were among a group of prominent speakers at several fringe meetings


LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 09: Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot addresses delegates during a fringe event on speaking up for Palestine within the Labour Party on October 09, 2023 in Liverpool, England. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves is among Labour MPs and Shadow Ministers addressing delegates on day two of party conference. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Pro-Palestinian activists who spoke at Labour Party conference fringe meetings blamed this week’s terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israel’s “apartheid” and Britain’s support for the Jewish state.

They also claim that Israel was subjecting the people of Gaza to “collective punishment” in its airstrikes on Hamas strongholds and shutting off utilities in the Gaza strips. 

But while protesters waving Palestinian flags demonstrated outside the conference complex entrance on Monday, there was little sign of hostility to Israel from delegates - in sharp contrast to the period when the party was led Jeremy Corbyn.

None of the three pro-Palestinian fringe events this year attracted more than about 100 people – at a conference estimated to have been attended by more than 15,000.

Speakers at these events were fiercely critical of Israel, claiming it was to blame for the atrocities, but none expressed outright support for Hamas and the murders it committed. 

The first meeting, on Monday afternoon, was organised by a group called Labour and Palestine.

It was opened by the hard-left former shadow chancellor John McDonnell MP, who began by expressing his sorrow “as a father and grandfather” for deaths on both sides of the conflict, including those massacred by Hamas.

“My children are the most precious gift I received in my life,” McDonnell said. “So to see the scenes of what happened in Israel, and to those young people at the music festival was horrifying and shocking. 

“I can’t imagine what their parents are going through. So that’s why I do condemn the killing of innocents, I do condemn the killing of those innocents by Hamas.”

In this, he set himself apart from Corbyn, who has failed to specifically condemn the Hamas atrocities, only saying he was “against all violence”.

However, voicing themes that other speakers would later echo, McDonnell said the loss of Palestinian lives must also be mourned and condemned. He went on to call for a ceasefire to allow “negotiations” that would lead to a “just peace, and an end to the illegal occupation of Palestine”, in order to realise the goal of “peace, freedom and human rights for all”.

More strident was Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who said of the minute’s silence in memory of Hamas’s victims that had taken place in the main conference hall shortly before she spoke: “If we were holding a minute’s silence for the dead in this conflict, we should be doing it every year. For the whole of my life there has been killing and bloodshed.”

This, she went on, was part of the historical “rubble” left by the British Empire, which began with the “disaster of the Balfour Declaration” and continued with the “Nakba” – the term used by Palestinians to describe the aftermath of Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Most the ills of the conflict could, she claimed, be blamed on Britain, “the former colonial power”.

She was followed by former trade union official Hugh Lanning, chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He said Israel first “declared war on Palestine” in 1948” and had continued it by building the separation barrier between Israel and the occupied territories, constructing West Bank settlements and with “the apartheid it operates every day”.

The violence seen last weekend “started 20 years ago” Lanning claimed, adding that it was “our responsibility, and we share the blame for everything that’s taking place”. 

He added that “international law is not a pick and mix. If you condemn the loss of life on one side, you must condemn the loss of life on all sides.” 

The last speaker was Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK and a member of Hamas’s rival Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Zomlet said: “We reject the targeting of civilians. We regret what has been taking place over the past few days.”

He too spoke of the need for negotiations, saying that currently, “every political avenue is blocked”. He also revealed that members of his own family had just been killed by airstrikes in Gaza.

Zomlot said: “How can Labour help? We need justice, not revenge. What Israel is doing now is revenge, sheer vengeance, that is not going to solve anything. Cutting off water is collective punishment, a war crime.”

He also described the Holocaust as “the most despicable crime in human history” but claimed that Palestinians had been treated as “lesser human beings for more than 100 years”. 

The PSC held its own meeting on Tuesday, chaired by campaigner Ryvka Barnard. She said the “events of the past few days” were “absolutely shocking, but should come as no surprise”, because Israel was an apartheid state that subjected Palestinians to “constant military assaults” in both the West Bank and Gaza. 

She said the British government had been “absolutely complicit in these crimes” and was now “actively endorsing and cheering on the Israeli government’s campaign of violence against the Palestinian people”.

The speaker most hostile to Israel was PSC director Ben Jamal. “Those who now rush to condemn the violence of Palestinian have no moral foundation”, he said, because “they support the system of apartheid”.

He condemned the projection of Israel’s flag on to public buildings in London and elsewhere, saying this was an “endorsement of apartheid”.

Jamal went on: “You cannot fly the flag of Ukraine as a symbol of resistance while supporting Israel, a state that is publicly declaring its intention to commit war crimes” – a reference to the airstrikes and the announcement by Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant that Israel was to mount a “siege” of Gaza and cut off supplies of water and electricity.

“The violence will never end until you deal with its root cause,” Jamal said, “which means apartheid must be dismantled.”

Jamal was followed by Mick Whelan, leader of the train drivers’ union Aslef. Somewhat bizarrely, he claimed that Israel was “using my industry as a tool of oppression” – by which, he said, he meant the building of railways and tramlines connecting West Bank settlements to the Israeli network.

McDonnell also spoke at the PSC meeting. He said that in Gaza, “we are seeing now almost an annihilation of citizens”.  Britain must pressure the international community to “ensure that the attacks on Gaza end” to commit a ceasefire and peace talks. 

The last event was held on Tuesday evening by Labour Friends of Palestine. Held in a huge and almost empty hall, it was addressed by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and Batley and Spen MP Kim Leadbeater, whose sister and predecessor, Jo Cox, was murdered by a right-wing terrorist.

After a minute’s silence to remember the victims, both condemned the Hamas attacks in unequivocal terms. Zomlot had been billed to appear, but Leadbeater said he had returned to London.

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