Jeremy Corbyn tells Jacobin: Israel must end the siege of Gaza

Former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (AFP)

David Broder

Jacobin  /  May 25, 2021

Former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – still the Labour Party member of parliament for Islington North – spoke to Jacobin about the fight for a Palestine free from occupation and why the Biden administration needs to end its military support for Israel.

On Friday, the declaration of a ceasefire brought a halt to the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. But the pause in violence does not mean an end to Palestinians’ suffering. As well as killing 248 people, the Israeli jets destroyed essential infrastructure in Gaza, hitting hospitals as well as the electricity and water supply to this densely populated area, and Gaza continues to be blockaded on all sides. Over the weekend, Israeli forces have maintained a siege of Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah district, and settlers are continuing to attack the Arab population.

The recent weeks of Israeli attacks brought massive resistance by Palestinians, including a general strike across historic Palestine last Tuesday, as well as solidarity demonstrations around the world. Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed both the huge rallies in London, each of which involved over a hundred thousand people. On Monday, he spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the ongoing displacement of the Palestinians, the international solidarity movement, and the need to stop arms sales to Israel.

At the London rally on Saturday, you said we need to take the chance to ensure the ceasefire is more than just a brief halt in the cycle of violence, before we’re out in the streets again protesting. What can be done to make that happen ?

The ceasefire is obviously a useful step — it is better than shooting, people dying, and the destruction that goes with it. But it is no more than a brief cessation of hostilities — there is no peace agreement. The fundamental issue still has to be addressed. I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what it’s like to be living under occupation in the West Bank. There, you’re under constant surveillance, with military checkpoints constantly disrupting your lives, your economic circumstances are poor and likely to get worse, and the future of your children is pretty grim.

So long as the United States and other countries tell Israel, “We support any action you choose to take,” there is no incentive for any Israeli government to reach any longer-term settlement, and so we head into a new conflict. My proposal — and it’s not unique to me — is that the huge outpouring of support for Palestine over the last two weeks, which we haven’t seen since Operation Cast Lead in 2008–9, needs to go toward pushing for recognition of the state of Palestine, ending the settlements, ending the occupation, and ending the siege of Gaza.

The ceasefire is obviously a useful step. But it is no more than a brief cessation of hostilities — there is no peace agreement.

And there has to be justice for the refugees. There are tens of thousands of refugees who know nothing other than life in camps in Jordan and Lebanon and beyond. We’re now into the fourth generation of refugees — they’ve been in the camps as long as I’ve been alive, and the occupation of the West Bank has gone on since the year I left school. So it’s got to change, and it won’t change unless the rest of the world is strong toward Israel.

We hear a lot about Israel’s “surgical strikes” supposedly targeted against militants in Gaza. But a few days ago, I spoke to a young woman in Rafah who described the bombs falling across residential areas, and even after the halt to fighting, the humanitarian situation is disastrous because of the blockade. You have visited Gaza before — can you tell us what you saw there, and what you’ve heard of the situation at the moment ?

As leader of the Labour Party for the last five years, I wasn’t able to go, but I have been to Gaza quite a few times. What I sense there is the vibrancy of the young people who want something different. A very high proportion have degrees and postgraduate studies, and many are very bored because there isn’t very much to do, unemployment rates are very high, and it’s a very crowded place. The electricity constantly goes off, there is a foul stench because the sewage works can’t operate for want of parts or power, there’s a shortage of fresh water because the aquifer is polluted, and so on.

In schools, the teachers tell me, it’s a question of managing the levels of tension. I visited a primary school in the northern part of the Gaza Strip and spent some time speaking to the students as well as the teachers. You could look out and see the fence between Gaza and Israel and the no-man’s-land between two parts of the fence. In that space, there are mounted machine guns that automatically fire if anybody touches or goes over that fence. That’s what children are being brought up with.

The huge outpouring of support for Palestine over the last two weeks needs to go toward pushing for recognition of the state of Palestine, ending the settlements, ending the occupation, and ending the siege of Gaza.

When the power goes out, you can look up toward Ashkelon and other places and see all the lights blazing. It’s like a constant reminder that you’re under siege. In the hospitals, there’s the same tension, with the constant shortages of medicine and what would be seen as basic supplies in hospitals around the world. If somebody needs a serious emergency operation or has cancers that can’t be treated at hospitals in Gaza, they have to go through the rigmarole of going to Israel, often with long delays. The occupation isn’t troops patrolling the streets but constant flights and drones overhead.

I was also in Gaza as an election observer in Rafah. When we were visiting a polling station, gunfire opened up, and we all had to go inside. After half an hour or so, we were allowed to go out again. We asked what happened, and it seemed Israeli soldiers near the Rafah crossing had opened fire — without necessarily aiming at anyone, just to show they were there, knowing it would disrupt the election. That’s the kind of atmosphere people are living under all the time. Dr Mona al-Farra of the Middle East Children’s Alliance reckons that 70 percent of the population have medically certifiable stress symptoms. It’s just awful to try and live there.

The vote you just mentioned was held all the way back in 2006; after many years’ delay, this Saturday was originally earmarked as election day, until it was canceled once again in April. But we have seen impressive displays of Palestinian unity across the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel during the last two weeks — notably the general strike, and Palestinians being more prominent on social media. What do you see as the way forward in getting a stronger Palestinian representation ?

I was talking to my friend Mustafa Barghouti about this last week. Obviously, elections ought to be held; there’s no question. It’s hard to see how they possibly can be, with the current military situation. Despite the ceasefire, there’s still harassment of people at Al-Aqsa, there’s still people being driven out of their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, and settlements go on. But holding elections would be a way of bringing people together, and it’d be a very diverse assembly.

I’m not in favor of anyone firing weapons at anyone. Barghouti pointed out to me that, whereas in Gaza there has been military resistance with rockets against Israel — most of which haven’t arrived — on the West Bank, there’s been a lot of nonviolent resistance and demonstrations. The thing is, they’ve been treated in exactly the same way, with the difference that, there, they have Israeli tanks coming in and destroying their homes, not jet planes coming from above and destroying their homes.

You spoke of international pressure. Last Monday, there was news of a $735 million weapons sale to Israel, and the Biden administration also hasn’t rolled back some of Donald Trump’s moves, like the US embassy in Jerusalem. Some House Democrats did, however, condemn the arms deal, notably Rashida Tlaib. What hope do you have in a change in policy, or at least the public debate, around military sanctions, in the United States — and what about Britain ?

I find President Biden’s response very disappointing indeed. He has a huge opportunity as a newly elected president, and the mood music and the language that Kamala Harris used after the election and the inauguration suggested a different approach, and the possibility of the recognition of the Palestinian state. Joe Biden has now said he’ll replenish all the arms that Israel has used and that he’ll continue to support it militarily.

I find President Biden’s response very disappointing indeed.

I think that what’s different is the degree of opposition to that policy — and support for the Palestinian people all over the United States. I was struck by the level of mobilization across the Midwest, in places like Detroit, and by the numbers of Democratic politicians speaking up strongly for Palestine, like Bernie Sanders. Under previous presidents, such support was absent among the whole Democratic Party and across large swaths of US society. I just hope that the House Democrats who have made their voice so clear will keep up the pressure on the Biden administration, to stop arms sales and to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to live — for that’s what it’s about.

I raised the question of arms sales in the British Parliament, as I have been doing for the last decade. I asked for the minister’s assurance that British weapons haven’t been used to bomb Gaza. He could not give me that assurance, because he’s unable and doesn’t want to tell me what they’re being used for — so the suspicion is that British weapons are part of the bombing of Gaza. Britain also imports weapons from Israel and has a close relationship also in terms of military training. In 2019, I was attacked for my concerns about this relationship, and the Daily Telegraph — a right-wing newspaper — even said that not wanting to continue this relationship was the reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to become prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been effective in moving the issue on to Iran as well — and with the Abraham Accords, some of the Gulf states are no longer willing to put any priority on support for the Palestinian people. But public opinion across the region, particularly young people — who are in the great majority — sees things very differently. I detect a much greater unity among the Palestinians themselves and preparedness to work together in the future. Trump’s annexation plan hasn’t completely disappeared, but it’s been dropped for a while because of its absurdity and illegality. It would have taken more of the West Bank settlements as annexed territory, destroying any principle of a Palestinian state.

In London, the demonstrations had more than a hundred thousand people on two Saturdays in a row. While in France, the government banned pro-Palestine protests, and in Germany, they were also widely denounced, it does seem that in Britain and America the Palestinian cause is gaining more visibility. At the same time, the language of settler colonialism — perhaps also linked to Black Lives Matter — is becoming more prominent. Do you see a shift in the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause ?

The numbers in London were the biggest for some time, probably since the Iraq War. There was a time when Palestine demonstrations were a combination of the politically committed and the Palestinian community — but it didn’t necessarily reach other communities. Black Lives Matter has changed a lot of perceptions surrounding it. Our demonstration on Saturday was huge. I couldn’t help but notice the great diversity of the crowd.

A lot of people on the center and Left have this misty-eyed view that anti-apartheid was a brilliantly successful movement that united everyone. But that isn’t how it was.

The person who spoke before me was Barnaby Raine, a young Jewish activist, and he gave a very strong and correct denunciation of all forms of antisemitism, pointing out how divisive it is. He was cheered to the rafters by the huge crowd, and I totally endorsed what he’d said. Support for Palestine transcends communities, and a lot of Jewish people attended both this march and the one the week before to the Israeli embassy.

In London, there was only a very small demonstration in support of Israel, attended by far-right activist Tommy Robinson, among others. And the protest by young Jews standing up for Palestinian rights was just as big.

Yes, well, I was delighted to meet lots of wonderful people at the Palestine demonstration, fighting for justice all around the world. When I led into my point about Palestinian refugees by talking about refugees the world over and the appalling way that the current home secretary, Priti Patel, is treating refugees — threatening to send the Navy into the Channel to stop them coming — I think people completely understood that you have to have solidarity with all peoples. Nobody complained at all that I wasn’t just talking about Palestine. The current state of the Rohingya, with 1 million now in Bangladesh, has horrible similarities with what happened to the Palestinian people in 1948.

Both the report by Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem in January and the Human Rights Watch report last month spoke of extreme segregation and exclusion amounting to apartheid, a term that has begun to enter public debate a lot more. But perhaps something younger readers will want to know, from activists like yourself who also opposed apartheid South Africa, is — how similar is the wall of opposition you faced in the two cases, in defense of these systems ?

I was involved in anti-apartheid activities from the late 1960s onward. A lot of people on the center and Left have this misty-eyed view that anti-apartheid was a brilliantly successful movement that united everyone. But that isn’t how it was. Many only joined right at the end. In the late 1960s and 1970s, protesting apartheid in the streets, at shopping centers, at meetings around the country, was not an easy experience. Opposing South African sports teams coming to Britain, we would get incredible abuse.

When the African National Congress (ANC) made the decision to focus on Nelson Mandela as the figurehead for the movement, that was effective and gave people someone to relate to. But Mandela was denounced by Margaret Thatcher in Parliament as a terrorist — and I was there when she did it! Again, the Tories eventually accepted the change that happened in South Africa, and they, like right-wing governments around the world, did their best to envelop the ANC and make sure that market economics remained in operation.

The ceasefire only happened because of the demonstrations, because of the pressure from Palestinians within Israel.

The idea that anti-apartheid in Britain was a huge popular movement from the very beginning is not true. It required incredibly dedicated and committed people, who incrementally gained support in communities and trade unions. I was a trustee of the British Defence and Aid Fund for victims of apartheid, which helped fund black South African students to come to universities in Britain and elsewhere.  There were lots of initiatives like that — and what I see now over Palestine is the way that trade unions have successively come to a position of recognizing Palestine and working with Palestinian unions and building up relationships.

There could be a sense of complacency, seeing the ceasefire as a step forward. The ceasefire only happened because of the demonstrations, because of the pressure from Palestinians within Israel and also the — not massive, but significant — number of Israelis concerned at the direction the country’s going. But this isn’t enough. We have to mobilize further and faster. I have suggested that we have an international day for Palestine: we did so against the Iraq War, in over 600 cities. Today, I’m sure we can do even more.

David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism