The cancelation was made after the group came under pressure from Labour Friends of Israel, a separate group inside the party. Legislators had been due to hear from Palestinian students over Skype.
Atwan had been invited to chair the meeting, which was scheduled for Tuesday evening. After a pro-Israel paper complained about the invitation, Labour Friends of Palestine told The Electronic Intifada Monday it would find a different chair.
But on Tuesday, Atwan was told the meeting had been canceled altogether. Palestinian co-organizers of the meeting had promised to turn up and insist Atwan chair the meeting regardless of his replacement.
Atwan slammed the move as a capitulation to the Israel lobby. “This is not the Labour Friends of Palestine, it’s the Labour Friends of Israel,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
Atwan had been jointly booked as chair by Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and GUPS, the General Union of Palestinian Students.
The event was planned as a “briefing for MPs [members of Parliament] to hear directly from four young Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon/Syria – live via Skype.”
Update: Labour Friends of Palestine told The Electronic Intifada after publication of this article that the event was “postponed not canceled” and would be rescheduled with a different chair.
Israel lobby pressure
Labour Friends of Palestine denied that Israel lobby pressure had been behind their move to replace Atwan. Director William Brown said on Monday that it was down to “controversial” statements Atwan had made in the past.
But it is clear an Israel lobby group has been campaigning for Atwan to be disinvited.
Labour Friends of Israel used a report in the Jewish Chronicle on Friday to call for the meeting to be canceled.
Brown said that Labour Friends of Palestine would not be responding to a letter Labour Friends of Israel had sent them and did not want to be “jumping to their tune.” But he said that Atwan should not have been invited to chair the meeting in the first place.
Brown said it was down to an oversight on his part, since his group did not want controversy over Atwan to overshadow the message Palestinian students wanted to bring to lawmakers.
Brown argued that the coalition-building nature of parliamentary work for Palestine meant minimizing controversy. He said that Atwan would still be welcome to attend the event and speak from the floor, but not to chair.
Fouad Shaath of GUPS told The Electronic Intifada on Monday that his group wanted the meeting to go ahead with Atwan and that any cancellation would not be down to them.
Proceeding with the event would have required the consent of the Labour Party members who booked the room.
In a letter to Grahame Morris, the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, Labour Friends of Israel’s chair Joan Ryan had accused Atwan of once saying he would “dance in [London’s] Trafalgar Square” if Iran were to “attack” Israel with missiles.
The Jewish Chronicle report went even further, claiming Atwan had been calling for a “nuclear” attack. Ryan’s letter makes no mention of this – The Electronic Intifada has obtained a copy and publishes it in full below.
But in fact, during the 2007 interview on Lebanese TV, the context makes it clear that Atwan was talking about Iran retaliating after an attack on the country by Israel and/or the United States.
Ryan’s quotation of Atwan appears to rely on a selectively edited extract from the interview uploaded to YouTube and subtitled by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute.
MEMRI is a well known staple in the world of anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic propaganda, and was founded by a former high-ranking Israeli spy.
Atwan told The Electronic Intifada he had been making a sarcastic joke, since he considered such an Iranian response highly unlikely. He said that he had been misquoted and his comments were taken out of context.
He said it was part of a “deliberate character assassination” against him by the Israel lobby in the UK.
To the usual accusations of anti-Semitism targeted at supporters of Palestine such as himself, Atwan responded by emphasizing the parts of his memoirs which called for a one-state solution in all of Palestine which would include Israeli Jews as equal citizens.
The leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has long been active in Labour Friends of Palestine. Soon after he won the leadership in September, he addressed a meeting of Labour Friends of Israel telling them that the siege of Gaza must end.
He was heckled by one member of the audience in response.
One of the most well-known and experienced Palestinian journalists in the world, Abdel Bari Atwan grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza and has lived in the UK for many years.
In July 2013, he stepped down after 25 year as the editor of London-based Arabic language daily al-Quds al-Arabi, and founded the Rai al-Youm news website. In an exclusive interview, Atwan told The Electronic Intifada that he had been pushed out by the paper’s funders.
The backers are thought to be from the gas-rich absolutist monarchy of Qatar, though Atwan refused to comment on this.
As well as being a fierce opponent of Israeli war crimes, Atwan has long been a critic of many Arab regimes, including the Palestinian Authority. He said of the PA’s officials visiting London “I try to avoid them, because I will explode.”
Of the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas he said, “When we actually throw in the towel, when we talk to the Israelis while settlement is continuing, when our leader said I give up my right to return to Safad … it tells you a lot.”