I conducted the following interview on November 7th in Canterbury, UK with Hugh Lanning, the Labour Parliamentary candidate for the Canterbury constituency in 2015. Prior to that he was the Deputy Secretary General of the Public and Commercial Services Union. In 2009 he was elected the chairman of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK. In 2017 he was the first British national to be refused entry into Israel after the Knesset passed Amendment No. 28 to the Entry Into Israel Law. He was interrogated for eight hours before being put on a flight back to the UK.
Hugh Lanning: I’m struck that a lot of people haven’t even got the basic history in their minds, particularly the UK role. I often use the disappearing Palestine map, just telling the story. Before the second world war, in the late-1930s, the Palestinians owned over 90 percent of the land of historic Palestine, the land “from the river to the sea.” Israel now has well over 90 percent of that land, and it took it by military control.
There was a process whereby they tried to legitimize it. Having kicked three-quarters of the population out, around 700,000, they did a census in 1948 whereby Palestinians—not Israelis—had to be in their residence, and if they weren’t in and didn’t go through the process they weren’t eligible to be an Israeli citizen or claim that as their place of residence. Only tens of thousands of Palestinians were able to comply. This was after the Nakba, when they’d just driven everyone out to the West Bank and Gaza. But then they passed a law saying that the Palestinians who’d been expelled weren’t allowed to go back. It would be a criminal offense. They’d be refugees. Then they passed a law saying if you weren’t a resident, in your place of residence for so many years, you didn’t want your land, we’ll take it. They’re still using those laws now to claim the land: you’ve been an absentee. We’re blocking you from returning.
It’s settler colonialism. The difference between settler colonialism and colonialism is, in settler colonialism you want to take the land and eliminate the people from it, physically remove them, so you take possession of the land—live on it, own it, farm it—whereas in colonialism you want to control the people. The Oslo Accords gave the Palestinians just over 20 percent of historic Palestine, and that’s now been settled by between 700,000 and a million illegal settlers. People ask, “How’s the war come about?” It’s just because the indigenous people have been driven off their land, and it’s been occupied, not by another people locally, but by people coming from around the world, mainly Eastern Europe and the States. People think there’s a “Palestine” that’s at war and lobbing bombs into Israel, but Israel has never recognized Palestine, and has never said what its own borders should be, whereas the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) did recognize Israel as part of the Oslo agreement.
The second thing that people don’t recognize is the occupation. After the Six-Day War, in 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. That’s a military occupation. I think it’s a problem here, probably in the States too: unless you go back to the Vikings or the French, or unless you’re indigenous in the States, we don’t understand what an occupation is. We’ve no conception about what it means to be imprisoned in your own country. So one of the transformations for me, going there, is that you see it. The wall is eight meters high. It surrounds Bethlehem. When you go there, when you see it, you know this is wrong. You go to the refugees camps that have been there since ‘48 or ‘67, you see the wall. I remember phoning my Mum from Bethlehem. It was Orthodox Christmas Eve. My Mum was a Catholic. I said, “Hello I’m in Bethlehem and it’s Christmas Eve.” But I was just trying to explain what life’s like, that Holy Land tourists are bussed in by Israelis and taken to see the manger and then bussed out again, but that Bethlehem is surrounded by the wall.
People don’t conceive what life is like under occupation. There was a young woman who came to a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference. She lives in Nabi Salih. She was saying you lie awake at night waiting for the sirens. Then you know there’s going to be a raid, and you’ll get dragged out. You try to go to school and you go through checkpoints. She wasn’t saying it as a drama. She said this is normal daily life. It takes three-and-a half-hours to get to school, you get rubbish thrown over you by the settlers.
I made a mistake. I was in Gaza, sitting next door to an old guy, having lunch. We’re all on benches sitting outside. He’d been really polite. He asked about my family, where they were and did I have children, and I said, naively, how about your family? And he told me: they’re all dead. And he went through the list: they died then, and they died there. It’s like the war now. We have no understanding of what life’s like for Palestinians. Where the fighting took place on the seventh, they had been Palestinian villages and towns. Half the population in Gaza are refugees, from that area, from Southern Israel.
I was chatting to the Palestinian ambassador about the reaction after the seventh, and his first observation is, there’s never anything about context. Israel never acknowledges that there was ever anything before. It can’t possibly be as a consequence of what they’ve been doing to the Palestinians for whatever period you want to count.
I think it’s worth saying that since Netanyahu came to power there’s been a huge increase in Israeli violence: in East Jerusalem, in Al Aqsa, as well as multiple attacks on Gaza. The general position of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) is: you don’t favor breaches in international law by anyone. Israel should’ve complied with international law. They should end the occupation. They should end the siege of Gaza. They should stop the illegal settlements. They should allow refugees to return. You can’t say you want international law to apply for Israel and then say that it doesn’t apply for Palestinians. This isn’t self-defense. This is Israel using their overwhelming military power to get revenge. Hamas has breached international law, but this isn’t about that now. Israeli war objectives are not a two-state solution, or any solution: their objectives are the physical and political elimination of Palestine.
When the Labour Party and others are saying, “We support self-defense,” actually what we’re supporting are the tactics and the war methods that Israel is using: to carpet bomb Gaza, to kill, now, over 10,000 people. People describe Gaza as all Hamas, but that’s like saying that England’s all Labour or Tory. In Gaza there are people who are fighters, but not that all two million people are Hamas. Fatah exists. There’s Christians, there’s non-aligned: a wide range of people.
We’ve given the green light, with no limits. We’re saying, “There’s nothing you can’t do.” So Israel projects all the images and the life stories of the 1300 people who were killed on October 7th, in detail: but it’s no better to be killed by a bomb. Whole families have been wiped out. Pregnant women. Children. Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestine National Initiative lives and works in the West Bank. He stood as an independent candidate. He’s a doctor and visits Gaza. There’s a story he tells where he’d been working with a couple who’d been having IVF treatment and they’d just had four children. The wife and the four children were all killed, in one hit. That’s happening all the time.
There’s a dehumanisation that’s taken place with the Palestinians. For Israel, all Palestinians are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, all Muslims are terrorists, and now they’re animals. In fact, Palestine’s first constitution was a secular one. Bethlehem used to be a majority of Christians. There’s a still a significant Christian community. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently made a statement condemning the Hamas attacks and affirming Israel’s right to self-defence. The Palestinian Christians’ response to that is to point out that they’ve been being killed for years and the Church has never said anything about that.
There’s this attempt by Israel to frame the narrative as a religious war, but it has nothing to do with religion. There were Jews living in Palestine in reasonable numbers before WWII. It’s the settlements that’ve caused the anger. As for the accusations of anti-Semitism, this isn’t accidental. After (Operation) Cast Lead, they lost the global media war, and acknowledged they lost it. They were portrayed as the oppressors. So they had a strategy. They commissioned a political think tank (the Reut Group) asking, how do we counter this? And since then they’ve tried to delegitimize their opponents. That has involved using anti-Semitism and accusations that people support terror.
When I was detained and interviewed by the Israeli security (in 2017) one of the questions was: “Who have you seen? Who are you going to see, who are you planning to see?” I went through all these trade unions and NGOs, Palestinian Authority people: all the people I worked with.
“Not them. The others.”
“What do you mean by ‘the others’?”
I said, “I’m not planning to see Hamas. We’re visiting the West Bank.”
“But you are a friend of Hamas.” And they brought out these photos of me standing in Gaza at a reception, with Hamas people there. It was a huge delegation, standing on the same platform.
They said, “Look, there’s the guy who is one of the leaders of Hamas at the moment.”
I said, “I’ve stood on the same platform as Margaret Thatcher and other people I don’t agree with.”
It was a civic reception. But they had what they described as evidence: “Here you are look, this is a photo of you.”
So they’ve had this strategy. They trawled through every PSC branch, all the people who were prominent figures, to find something they could use. They produced a dossier. Attack scenario, which is what they did on Jeremy (Corbyn). They set up a strategy department responsible for this, challenging the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS). This is all in the public domain. It isn’t conspiracy theory. It is their public strategy.
The second element was to demonize the Palestinians. And the third component was mobilizing the Jewish communities around the world. They said, “We’ve got supporters of Israel in all these countries, we need to be using them to follow this agenda.” Groups like the Board of Deputies (of British Jews), Labour Friends of Israel, Jewish Labour Movement, all of those: they put money in and supported them, whether that’s directly from Israel, or from the embassy, or whether it’s people with money. Corbyn was a huge opportunity for them to push that agenda, which they did, and it coincided with where the right-wing of the Labour Party were, where the establishment was, and all those forces came together.
Equally, Israel is terrified about being labeled as an apartheid regime, because they saw what happened to South Africa and the boycott campaigns around that. They’re committing the crime of apartheid. B’Tselem did one of the major reports, as did Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. All three described Israel as operating an apartheid policy. Their regime controls the whole of that area, “from the river to the sea.” It’s a regime they operate, in the whole of that territory and wherever you live, if you’re a Palestinian, the laws are different for you. The laws, education, money, water, food. People say it’s really complicated, and I say it’s not, it’s simple. There’s an oppressor and there’s an oppressed. There’s an occupied. There’s an occupier. Israel is the occupier, and if it wants peace it has to end the occupation.
I think it’s a false debate, the argument that goes on between one-state and two-state solutions. The current state is a no-state solution. The current position is: there’s no Palestinian state. There’s an Israeli regime. Until there’s a shift in the balance of power between Israel and Palestine, there can be no solution. It’s not the Palestinian negotiating demands that are the problem. It’s not whether they're going in asking for a one-state or a two-state solution, it’s the fact that if they ever get to a negotiating table, there’s Israel, there’s the US, there’s the EU, everybody ranged against them. They're not going to get any solution out of that unless BDS, world opinion, other forces make Israel negotiate to a fair solution.
More and more Palestinians are saying that any solution has to be based upon equality and human rights. In whatever state-formation there is, every person living in that area has to have the same status and the same human rights, the same equality. However you parcel it up into whatever nation state formulations you have—if it’s a federation, a confederation, one state, two state—within all of that it’s up to the Palestinians to decide what the precise formulation is. It’s not for us to say we know better.
There can’t be a solution without the decolonization of Palestinian land, and them being given back the land. If they’re corralled into the little bit of the West Bank, with all the settlements, a tiny bit of East Jerusalem, whatever’s left of Gaza, that’s no basis for a state. Most of them have had most of their land taken away. You see quotes of up to a million settlers in the West Bank. 700,000 is the minimum. Settlements aren’t “settlements.” These are towns and cities. They’ve got their own roads, water systems, electricity. They aren’t little houses on the prairie. So those need to be got rid of, taken over. There has to be an acceptance by Israel that they are there illegitimately. They have to give back the Palestinians their land: at least what’s been seized since 1967. And then: if you know how much land it’s going to be, you can start talking about what shape and form and type of state there’s going to be. Then there’s the refugees, the ones in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
In terms of a solution: the only possible good thing that can come out of what’s going on is that it’s now back on to the agenda, that there has to be a search for a solution. A ceasefire isn’t just about ending the atrocity. A pause is no good because they’re just going to carry on. If there’s going to be something that flows on from that, I think that land and occupation, which are linked, are critical. And the shift of power, it means that “the world,” global western governments, have to put their weight behind a Palestinian state or a solution, whereas all their weight at the moment is behind Israel. If military arms and aid were stopped Israel would run out of money and bombs. Israel is portrayed as an economic miracle, but essentially it’s been funded by the West, mainly in the form of arms, by the American taxpayer. Europe has put in a lot too. Crudely speaking, Europe has funded the occupation and America has funded the army.
There’s one other point. People don’t understand Britain’s historic role. With the Balfour Declaration we gave away what wasn’t ours, largely for anti-Semitic reasons. We didn’t want Jews coming to the UK so we supported them and allowed to have their own homeland. People don’t know that we ran Palestine, the British Mandate, from 1918 through to 1948. We were the military power. And you still see it. In Nablus there’s an old post box, and a lot of the dispossessed people, they’ve got imprimaturs from the Mandate to say they own a house or a piece of land. It was the British who walked away in 1948. We had the forces there, we could’ve stopped the Nakba. We armed the Zionist terrorists and let them get on with it. And we’ve supported Israel ever since. Why is the UK, London, promoting Israel? Because it’s our fault. We did it. But if you ask people questions—how long has Israel been around, what involvement have the British had, is there an occupation going on—a lot of people don’t know. It’s very simple. We gave away land that wasn’t ours, and the Israelis took it from the people it belonged to. They’ve made it so that the indigenous people are strangers in their own land, outlaws in their own country.
—You can read the latest by Hugh Lanning here.