I was honoured to be asked to speak at the 13th Conference for Palestinians in Europe, last Saturday in Berlin.
I was invited by the Council for European-Palestinian Relations (CEPR), which also funded the European Parliamentary delegation I was part of which visited Gaza the week after the Israeli attacks in December 2012. The Berlin conference was co-ordinated by the Palestinian Return Centre, the Palestine Assembly in Germany and Palestinian organisations from across Europe.
The Scottish Parliamentary week had been eventful one from a Palestinian perspective with my friend and colleague Sandra White’s debate on recognising the State of Palestine on the Tuesday. The following day, the Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Palestine meet in the evening when a well-attended meeting heard of various educational initiatives to bring academic impartiality to the issues of Palestine. The Group saw an excellent 20 minute film prepared by the Balfour Project which laid out the history giving rise to the present plight of the Palestinians. Impartial information is always important, and given the recent shocking revelation that a North Lanarkshire school had homework worksheets labelling Palestinians as “terrorists” it is evident that much remains to be done.
I left Edinburgh on Friday morning before 8 and got back after 11 the following night so it was certainly a ‘flying visit’. I shared the plane from London with Pat Sheehan MLA, a Sinn Féin Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who had also been part of the Gaza delegation.
On arrival in Berlin we went to the offices of one of the many Palestinian support groups in the city, home to Europe’s largest Palestinian population – up to 40,000. There we met two teenage Palestinian brothers who’d arrived a few months previously from Syria. Since ‘Al-Nakba’ or ‘the Catastrophe’ in 1948, when the creation of Israel saw half of the Palestinian population expelled, Palestinians have lived throughout the Arab nations with many, over half a century later, still in ‘refugee camps’. The plight of Palestinians living in Syria, particularly those in the infamous Yaramouk refugee camp who suffer greatly, is of immediate and pressing concern to Palestinians worldwide.
The Conference had various book stalls and art exhibitions. I was hugely impressed by the collection of a Yaramouk artist who, denied of normal painting materials, used collected coffee grounds to create memorable pictures.
At night, we were joined by Liberal Democrat Lord Hugh Dykes, another long-time supporter of a just Middle East settlement and were part of a group of three hundred who listened to a series of speeches from delegates attending from around the world before being given a sumptuous Palestinian meal.
In the month leading up to the Conference there had been a significant campaign in the media, organised by pro-Israeli lobby, to smear the conference as some gathering of ‘terrorists’. The campaign had even called on the German authorities to cancel the event. The anticipated opposition demonstration saw a few dozen turn up and they were kept well away from the Conference centre by a significant police presence. A happy, family carnival atmosphere was the hallmark of the day, with lots of children with flags and a great array of food stalls.
Mr Adel Abdallah, General Secretary of the Palestinians in Europe Conference opened the event, held in a giant hall which reminded me of the SECC. He welcomed everyone adding that those attending send a message to the whole world that the Palestinian people will never forget their basic rights, including the precious right of return to their homeland of 1948.
I was originally advised that myself, Pat, Hugh and a local German politician, Alexandra Thein of the Free Democratic Party, were to each speak for ten minutes then participate on a panel. However, the growing number of high profile delegates, including Mr Mustafa Al Rumaid, Moroccan Minister of Justice; a special envoy from the Turkish Prime Minister; the highly respected leader of the Palestinian Initative Party, Dr Moustafa al Barghouti and many others meant there were no morning panels with all speakers being limited to less than 5 minutes.
When called to speak I offered greetings from the Parliament’s Cross Party Group advising that an independent Scotland would have recognised the state of Palestine. I also suggested that, as the architect of the Middle East chaos, the United Kingdom should take the lead in seeking a resolution by recognising the state of Palestine, an act which could be a catalyst for the EU to do likewise.
I suggested Mr Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, needed an ‘incentive’ for peace and the removal of Israel’s tariff free access to the EU and divestment was the way to incentivise action. I said language was important and the use of words like ‘war crimes’ and ‘genocide’ appropriate. I quoted lines from a Dick Gaughan song – ‘by theft and murder they took the land now everywhere the walls rise up at their command’ – saying, whilst not written about Palestine, it clearly could have been, and the walls must be taken down.
I contrasted the response of the UK and Scottish Governments to last year’s attack on Gaza when the Scottish Government advised that the international community should act to investigate war crimes; offered to treat the injured and provide asylum to those seeking it and called on everyone to work to bring about a just and lasting peace settlement. By contrast, the UK had simply stated that it ‘recognised Israel’s right to defend itself’.
Like Pat before me, who said a few words in Irish, I finished talking with some Gaelic. I explained Alba gu Brath meant ‘Scotland for ever’, and Eirinn gu Brath ‘Ireland forever’, so finished with the words Palestine gu Brath! A short but sweet contribution to a crowd of over 10,000, and a privilege to be in such esteemed company.
After, I enjoyed speaking with delegates many of whom were fully aware of the level of support for Palestine in Scotland.
Pat and I were interviewed by a German documentary film crew travelling Europe and visiting Israel examining ‘anti-Semitism’. I suspect that, notwithstanding a very aggressive interview style, I may not feature in the finished article. Saying ‘for the fourth time I unreservedly condemn violence from whatever quarter’ visibly disappointed the interviewer who tried without success to provoke some intemperate comments. Off camera, the producer indicated that there was a popular belief in Germany that support for Palestine was a ‘left’ issue and that supporters rarely criticised those on both sides who resort to violence, adding that he never hears the same people criticise China about Tibet. I invited him to recommence filming at which point I would happily condemn China’s atrocious record of human rights abuses! After some friendly chat about football and Scotland, the crew conceded that they envisaged the Conference would be fertile ground for anti-Semitism however that transpired not be to be the case. There you go then – nothing but talk of peaceful co-existence, right of return, adherence to international law and humanitarian norms!
Pro-Israel groups, whose nonsense about the Conference dominates pre- and post-event online coverage, work hard at putting pressure on German politicians not to engage with Palestinian groups. Alexandra Thein, who is married to a Palestinian, none the less bravely decided to speak and, notwithstanding there being no German/English translation, her passion and commitment were evident and she earned great respect for refusing to be intimidated.
It was apparent that the right of return was a key issue for everyone. I spoke to a middle-aged man who lives in London about the background. I asked him if he really would uproot himself and his family from London and go to a new state of Palestine. He told me he had been born in Syria and brought up in Libya where he graduated from university and was long-time resident of London. He told me passionately that felt he was entitled to the ‘right of return’, a right which he may or may not exercise, the important thing was it would be his choice. He told me that wherever he’d lived, no matter how well he was received, he was never a national of that country, the one consistent thing in his life was he was always a ‘Palestinian’.
The day of the Conference saw two significant events, the death of 17-year-old Palestinian, Ali Abu Ghannam, shot by Israeli police and the earthquake in Nepal. On my return to Scotland I learnt that Israel was commendably sending 260 medical and rescue crew members to assist with the disaster in Nepal. It is however to their eternal shame that they have never seen fit to send such resources to assist Gaza!
The many concerns about Israel’s casual disregard for international law and their dehumanising of the Gaza’s citizens remain. Whatever the challenges, whatever the irony that Tony Blair is a ‘Middle East Peace Envoy’, we must all redouble our efforts to push for a just and lasting peace settlement for all.