6 December 2008
There has been much talk by our leaders of British values in recent times and there are many traditions in this country of which we should be rightfully proud. From Vietnam, to the anti-Apartheid movement and the opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has been home to some of the strongest movements for peace and justice in the world. But only a fortnight ago, those of us who believe in these values would have been left confused if not outraged to witness our most prominent institutions falling over themselves to honour a man who has come to represent the worst injustices in the Middle East.
While the besieged families of Gaza were being bombed and starved, the British establishment was showering the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, with honours usually only reserved for statesmen who have made genuine contributions to peace and justice in our world. Last month, Peres was welcomed to Britain on an official visit during which he spoke to both Houses of Parliament, began a lecture series in his name at Oxford University and was even given the rare privilege of being knighted by the Queen, all the more unique for a non-Commonwealth citizen.
Such treatment would have rightly been lauded by the British public if granted to a fellow Noble Peace Prize winner such as Desmond Tutu, who devoted his life to the cause of ending apartheid. But while Tutu was confronting injustice in South Africa, Peres as Israeli Defence Minister was responsible for breaking the embargo and making Israel a major arms supplier of the apartheid regime. For the millions of us in Britain who supported the South African anti-apartheid movement we would be justified in feeling that this tradition of solidarity with the oppressed was betrayed when the red carpet was rolled out for Peres.
Many South Africans themselves felt the same, with politicians, academics and ordinary workers expressing their opposition to the honouring of the Israeli President. In a letter to Oxford University protesting Peres' invitation, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, representing 1.7 million workers wrote that "as South Africans whose oppression was fuelled by the Israeli state, and certainly Peres himself, we stand in solidarity with Palestinians who, for more that 60 years have lived under Israeli Apartheid".
Leading academics from South Africa described the invitation as "an acceptance of the disregard of the United Nations (which Israel has consistently ignored and defied), an acceptance of the disregard for the International Court of Justice (which ruled that the 700km long wall that Israel continues to build is illegal), and an act of complicity in the dispossession of the largest refugee population of the 20th century."
While the Israeli President has been very eloquent in talking about peace the reality of his record turns the very meaning of the word on its head. In 1948 it was Peres was responsible for purchasing weapons for the Haganah militia which drove out Palestinians from their homes. It was Peres after all who brought nuclear arms to the Middle East as the architect of Israel's nuclear programme. And it was Peres who as Prime Minister in 1996 was responsible for the massacre in Qana when Israel intentionally bombed a known UN site killing over one hundred civilians.
Today Israel practices what the former UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, John Dugard described as "forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law". Many brave Palestinians and Israelis have stood side by side in the struggle against these unjust policies. Any number deserves praise and celebration but their daily courageous struggle was simply ignored by the government in favour of the man that represents all the oppression they are standing against.
Last month it was left to ordinary men and women in Britain to stand up for the values of peace and fairness, and the best of this country's traditions. In London and Oxford, people wrote letters, gathered in the streets and protested the rewarding of an apartheid regime that was being carried out in our name. Today our admiration should be with the families of Gaza, who for months have been subjected to a brutal blockade which has cut off their access to the most basic of human necessities. Desmond Tutu has described the Israeli siege as an ‘abomination’ but our leaders have chosen to bestow upon the man responsible some of the highest honours this country has to offer.
I am grateful to Omar Shweiki for his work on this column.