The double standards of the British government in relation to Palestine and Israel were laid bare yesterday with the news that Palestinian activist Saeed Amireh has been refused a visa to visit the UK.
Amireh, a member of the popular committee in his West Bank village of Nilin, was due to begin a speaking tour that would have taken him from the south coast of England to Dunblane in Scotland, speaking to the network of branches of Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and university Palestine societies. In London, he was due to speak alongside Sami Abu Shehadeh, of the Jaffa Popular Committee for the Defence of Land and Housing Rights, in a meeting organized by PSC and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
However, a government which, in 2011, changed the law to make it easier for Israeli war criminals to enter the UK, yesterday denied Amireh, a peaceful campaigner against the Israeli occupation and the theft of Nilin’s land, the right of entry. He was told he hadn’t provided “enough supporting documents,” even though he had supplied everything that was asked for, including a letter of invitation and guarantee of his costs being paid from PSC.
Amireh, 21, is used to struggle. At the age of 17, as he was about to take his final school exams, he was imprisoned by the Israeli authorities for four and a half months. A year earlier, he had been demonstrating against the wall which is destroying Nilin when the Israeli army began shooting live rounds. A 10-year-old child, Ahmed Moussa, was shot in the head. As he fell, Amireh rushed to catch him and has described his shock as he held the boy while he bled to death, his brain falling out of his skull.
Amireh has spoken in Europe and Australia about these experiences and the nonviolent resistance of the people of Nilin against the wall and illegal settlements which have stolen the village’s land, reducing it from 5,800 dunnums to 800. The village is surrounded by five settlements, and an apartheid road, off-limits to Palestinians, cuts through its heart. In preparation for a total closure, the Israeli army has begun constructing a tunnel that will take Palestinians in and out of Ni’lin at set times of the day.
It is these truths, this personal telling of the atrocities of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, that the British government has stopped Amireh from recounting to its citizens in England and Scotland by denying him a visa.
In contrast, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in May 2010, it almost immediately began work on changing the legislation around universal jurisdiction – the principle which allows a person accused of war crimes to be prosecuted in any country, regardless of where the alleged offense was committed.
This action followed the serving of an arrest warrant on Tzipi Livni, one of the masterminds of Israel’s massacre in Gaza in 2008-09, by pro-Palestinian lawyers when it was heard that she planned on visiting London in December 2009. The visit subsequently didn’t go ahead.
In April 2010, a month before the general election in Britain, the then opposition Conservative Party ran a full page advert in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper. The ad was headlined: “A Conservative Government would protect the Jewish Community and Britain’s relationship with Israel.”
It continued: “Under Labour, Israelis can’t visit the UK without fear of arrest and imprisonment.” Several pledges followed underneath, the first of which stated: “Universal Jurisdiction will be amended at the earliest opportunity to enable Israelis to visit the UK.”
On being elected a month later, the Conservatives, with their coalition Lib-Dem partners, stayed true to their word. A bill, which included terms to amend universal jurisdiction, began its passage through Parliament and, in September 2011, became the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. In October 2011, protected by both the act and “special mission” status granted especially for the occasion by the government, Livni flew into London to meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
By changing the law to facilitate the visit of Livni and other Israelis fearful of being served with arrest warrants for war crimes, while barring Amireh, the British government has made its position clear. Israeli politicians who sanction the slaughter of children and women are welcome in this country, while Palestinians who peacefully resist an illegal occupation are not.
Amireh had been invited to visit Sir Bob Russell, the Member of Parliament for Colchester, in Parliament, while in England. That visit will not now take place. His case is already being taken up, including by John Austin, former MP for Erith and Thamesmead, who tweeted today:
@WilliamJHague You intervened personally to allow alleged war criminal Livni into UK. Intervene now to allow non-violent Saeed Amireh entry— John Austin (@JohnEAustin) February 12, 2013
Other governments have not been so fearful of Amireh’s presence in their country, or of his words. In mid-January he returned to Nilin following a three-month speaking tour which saw him tell the story of Palestine’s resistance in Sweden, Finland, Germany, France Spain and Italy.
In France, he was featured in Paris Match online and in the pages of La Croix newspaper; in Sweden he took part in a national radio debate on G4S, the security firm which provides services to Israeli prisons and checkpoints in the West Bank. And in March 2012, he spoke in Australia.
The British government, however, has been showing its colors since coming to power in 2010. During Israel’s assault on Gaza in November 2012, in which 170 Palestinians were killed in eight days, Hague told news channels: “… it is Hamas that bears principal responsibility for starting all of this.” This one-sided position was confirmed over coming months by subsequent letters from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to PSC and other activists.
In June 2011, Sheikh Raed Salah, the Palestinian civil rights and religious leader, was arrested during a speaking tour in the UK and informed that he was banned from the country under the orders of the Home Secretary, Theresa May.
Salah took the case to court and, a year later, the vice-president of the Upper Immigration Tribunal threw out all charges against him. The vice-president noted that May had been misled as to the facts around Salah — facts, which the court heard, had principally been provided by the Community Security Trust, whose motto is “Protecting the Jewish Community.”
Sad and shocked
Amireh, then, is in good company. He is not the first Palestinian to be treated as less than equal by the British government and he won’t be the last. His pain, however, is raw and immediate. His statement on being told of his refusal yesterday said it all:
I am so sad today and so angry and shocked at how these people could be like that. No embassy has been ever like this with me and all my previous travel all over the world to so many different countries is proof that I am not intending to leave my beloved country.
Please please apologize to all groups and organizations that have arranged and invited me. As much as I was so excited to come to the UK, not only because of the tour, but for many other reasons as well, my heart is in shock, and sad, and feeling depressed and insulted, because this justification and permission to travel and speak and to leave our country is not required from anyone in the world except for us Palestinians who are not recognized and cannot travel freely.
I have many times wished to get another nationality to be able to travel freely because of the suffering and difficulties we face. But at the end I come back to say still, how proud I am for being a Palestinian, the system will never stop this love. You cannot imagine what kind of insulting manners and words I accepted while I was applying to the UK embassy just because of the fight for Palestine! But I will never stop and I hope you will hear this and understand why this fight for justice is so important to me and so many others.
I am so sorry I could not be there to meet you all. One day soon I hope we can find a way for me to be there with you, or even better, to meet you all here, in a free Palestine!