David Ward MP on the pro-Israel lobby, the two state solution and the suppression of Palestinian rights
"You become very aware, with all of the parties to be honest, that there is a very very strong pro-Israeli lobby which is very very influential in British politics at the moment."
"I was always aware of the issue" says David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, on how he became interested in Palestine. Just before University, Ward worked in Israel for a few months, living with a family there. One of them had served in the Israeli army. Ward has also visited the West Bank and Gaza, and is an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories.
The conflict, along with the region of Kashmir, is hugely important in his constituency – as a result, fellow party members have criticised him for attempting to harness the Muslim vote. Ward, though, says this simply made him aware of the issue and encouraged him to find out more about it.
Back in July of this year, Ward was suspended from the party for two months when controversy erupted over comments he had made on the conflict. The following is a blog post which he wrote and published in January just ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day:
"Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza."
Six months later he posted this tweet: "Am I wrong or are am I right? At long last the #Zionists are losing the battle – how long can the #apartheid State of Israel last?"
Looking back on his blog post four months later, Ward explains that even though he had spoken and read a great deal about the Palestinian issue, he was still disturbed when he travelled to Gaza. Afterwards he visited Auschwitz with a group of school children: "to go from the awful shock and horridness of Auschwitz and then see first-hand the suppression of the Palestinians shocked me" he says.
"I think I didn't like seeing the IDF were at Auschwitz" he continues. "It's part of the basic training to visit there but I wasn't quite comfortable with that after going to Gaza. Then I went to the West Bank, so from one side to the other I was seeing awful treatment of people by people and I became determined to try and make a contribution if I could to raising the issue of the suffering of the Palestinians."
He was also aware of the British legacy there, "where the post-colonial imperialist British had left behind a mess," something that is also the case with Kashmir. "I did feel that we as a country, as a British nation have a responsibility because we were very much responsible for creating the conditions where the conflict developed" he adds.
The blog post in question was published on a Wednesday night. By Friday night he had had 150,000 hits on his website.
"I was relatively new and unknown - outside of Bradford anyway - a new MP" says Ward. "I was just staggered that it could create such a response. We had 970,000 in the first three weeks. It was just unbelievable. As somebody who had 5 or 600 followers on Twitter, I thought, what on earth is this?"
Visitors to the site may have been pouring in, but so were complaints about Ward's use of language. In a letter sent by chief whip Alistair Carmichael to Ward in July he stated: "During the meeting, we put it to you that your most recent statement – which specifically questions the continuing existence of the State of Israel – is neither proportionate nor precise."
Later in the interview Ward tells me that he was suspended for saying that the State of Israel should not exist, and that party policy supports a two state solution. "I've never actually said that, that it didn't exist" he explains. "If you asked my opinion as to whether or not it should have been created, that's another matter. We are where we are to some degree."
"You become very aware, with all of the parties to be honest, that there is a very very strong pro-Israeli lobby which is very very influential in British politics at the moment" he says. So did this lobby play a part in his suspension? "The party will say not" he says. "They'd say there were acting really on the basis of their judgement that my comments brought the party into disrepute. I think that in some ways that's water under the bridge now. There were subsequent comments that again led to the suspension from the party."
"Still I have people coming up to me and saying well I agree with you but I might not have put it that way" he says. "And I thought long and hard about the actual words that I used. But it dawned on me really that there were no words that would have been acceptable. It doesn't matter really what I'd have said or how I would have said it, the fact that it was a criticism of Israel and trespassed onto the unforgivable areas of the Holocaust, meant that whatever I said to be honest, the reaction would have been pretty much the same."
"What was very, very successful was the deflection from what I was actually saying" continues Ward, "about what was happening to Palestinians onto the language of what I said and the use of the Holocaust and indeed anti-Semitism as a weapon in frightening off those who feel they have a contribution to make in supporting Palestinians. You always have to think about what you say and how you say it. That makes sense. But you do reach the conclusion that nothing would be acceptable."
On Wednesday 27 November, supporters of Palestine will assemble in parliament and lobby – from the other direction - for action to be taken on Palestinian human rights, for theNational Lobby of Parliament for Palestine. They are campaigning for MPs to challenge ethnic cleansing and discriminatory policies, to ban of settlement goods, respect prisoners' rights and call for an end to Israel's illegal treatment of Palestinian prisoners, including children, and end to the siege on Gaza.
But how much of an effect do days like these have on the conflict? "Well not enough I don't think" says Ward. "There's a huge imbalance and I think I was made very much aware of that after comments I made earlier this year back in January."
The Israeli army attack on the Freedom Flotilla, and Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, were powerful images that changed a lot of people's minds, believes Ward. "There is a tide that is turned really. We need to work on this, keep saying it and show people what is happening there."
"The propaganda machine and the PR of Israel is so slick and so powerful that it needs to be counted" he continues, "not by a slick president and slick words but by just showing people what is currently happening day in day out. If you drive down the coast road in Gaza and smell the sea and just understand why it's polluted, what's causing that, then you begin to understand."
He thinks there is a view in the party that members shouldn't be deflecting from the job of improving the economy, especially given the controversy they attract along the way when it comes to speaking out about the Israel Palestine conflict.
"Here we are trying be seen as a serious party in government and here we have this person who's upsetting a really powerful lobby and having to deal with this when really what we want to do is something about raising the tax threshold and try and get the message across about the pupil premium. So I suspect there's a degree of annoyance and irritation."
"But it needs to be there" he says, showing me a copy of Ad Lib, the Liberal Democrat monthly magazine. Leafing through the pages he points out articles on how to win in Aylesbury, the national job campaign day of action, how to recruit new members, before stopping at one particular headline that reads: 'Meanwhile in… Israel. Just what do tech companies find so attractive about setting up in Tel Aviv.'
"What is that doing in there?" He says. "Who has put that there… will it be tourism in Syria next month?"
Still, there are more and more MPs going there now, he points out. "The more that can happen, the better. You can't go there and see it, and not be affected by it." He draws a picture of a Palestinian house he saw on one of his trips, the 'separation barrier' curving around it and cutting it off from the West Bank, with only a bridge to connect the family inside to the other side of the wall.
"The cost of doing that, with a big gate there that only opens at certain times, to their homes, the level really of detailed control that exists is really quite unbelievable" says Ward. "The way that somebody is monitoring that somewhere in a country of so many million people, somebody for one house went to the trouble of getting the wall to there, because if they were thrown out it would have been international news or something."
We need to organise ourselves far better in terms of opposition to what Israel is doing, believes Ward, and explore and use the South African example. "Quite clearly, Israel are winning and so all the claims that they are willing to negotiate, why should they? Why should they negotiate, why should they want a peace settlement, they are winning day after day after day. They are winning and they are being allowed to."
How is this permitted to happen, how does the international community not say this is wrong, that day after day 100s of 1000s of people need to be fed, he asks. "We know the answer to this question – because of the incredible power and support that they have from America and to some degree from Europe simply through not applying enough pressure, and you'd have to say from the UK government as well."
Many politicians, says Ward, are settled into an easy "we support the two state solution" position; "if there is a hustings, a meeting of PSC [Palestine Solidarity Campaign] you can go along and you can say this is terrible, we need to do something about it and we support the two state solution to this and we will continue to argue for that."
"I think that now it's just become a standard response that will be produced for parliamentary candidates. I cannot see evidence, I see Obama to be a huge let down."
"But how do we get there? How on earth do we get to the state where there is a two state solution to this when day after day after day there is an expansion of settlements, there's no economy that can be developed by the Palestinians, there's suppression of them."
To improve the situation, we don't need an economic miracle, he believes. What we need is for the international community to think and talk about how we can enforce the resolutions that exist. What we also need, says Ward, is a genuine peace movement that brings together Israeli Jews, Jews around the world and all those that support the Palestinians.
"At the end of the day there is the common humanity, the human rights common humanity angle I think, in an area that's not really being developed and so I would say a genuine peace movement which brings people together, stops people committing horrendous acts against other people. And that goes both ways."
"I condemn the rockets being fired out of Gaza" he continues, "and it does nothing at all to help the peace process. Or move towards a peaceful resolution. And in fact, it just enables the Israeli government to use the security as the excuse for the continued suppression of the Palestinians."
Published in Middle East Monitor