Len McCluskey, head of Britain’s largest union, responds to critics on Israel and Palestine

Several weeks ago we reported that a pro-Israel lobbying group in the UK had launched an appeal to supporters to write to Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, the country’s largest trade union, to protest the union’s one-sided view of the recent clashes between Israel and Hamas.  McCluskey has now responded, and Luke Akehurst, a Labour Party activist and Unite member, has written a response to McCluskey.  We reproduce both of these below – they make for extraordinary reading.

Original Unite Statement



Len McCluskey’s email

From: Len.McCluskey@unitetheunion.org
Date: Wed, 2 Jan 2013 13:00:30 +0000
Subject: Unite Statement of solidarity with the people of Gaza

Since making a statement on behalf of the union unreservedly condemning the recent Israeli assault on Palestinians in Gaza I have received a number of e-mails, some remarkably similar in content, from members of the public (few, if any, appear to be members of Unite) taking me to task for a variety of what are in reality, imagined or contrived, offences.

Some have sought to use our statement to make a tenuous link between the union and Hamas, and by association with the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is clear, however, in the original statement that Hamas was mentioned just once, in the context of being the winners of the Palestinian parliamentary elections.  No political or other support has been offered by Unite to Hamas and we remain wary of it, not least because of the banishment of the PGFTU from Gaza when Hamas assumed the government there.

Maintaining an arm’s length relationship with the government in no way diminishes our outrage at the suffering of the Palestinian people.  The overwhelming power of Israel and its disproportionate use of force has resulted in a clearly asymmetric war that may be measured by the deaths and injuries sustained by the Palestinians, greater by several factors than those sustained by the Israelis.

My detractors invite me to examine and comment on the human rights situation in a random selection of Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African countries which rather bypasses the issue under discussion, Palestine and Israel. (But for the record, my union and I have condemned all of those nations that seek to oppress democratic opposition and attack free trade unions).

Israel currently stands in breach of the Geneva Convention; acting contrary to at least two UN Security Council resolutions; and, ignoring the decision of the International Court of Justice.

The ending of the Six Day War of 1967 was marked by the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 242 that called for the “withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”  Similarly, the ending of the Yom Kippur War 1973 was marked by the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 338 that called for “the parties concerned to start immediately after the cease-fire the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242 in all of its parts” in other words withdrawal to the 1967 border.

Rather than withdraw, Israel has instituted a network of settlements (colonies) across the occupied territories contrary to the 4th Geneva Convention which forbids the transfer of its civilian population by the occupying power into the occupied territory; annexed East Jerusalem (with expanded borders); extended Israeli civilian law into the Golan Heights; and, kept the West Bank and Gaza subject to military incursion.

More recently there has been the construction of an 8 metre high concrete Wall separating the West Bank from Israel. Much of the Wall is being built inside the West Bank, to the east of the Green Line, often making big loops into Palestinian territory to ensure that Israeli settlements (colonies) are on the “right” side of the Wall.

The International Court of Justice ruled in July 2004 that the Wall was illegal, infringed the rights of Palestinians, should be pulled down and Israel should pay compensation for damage caused. The Wall continues to be built today.

Small wonder that Israel and its American allies fear formal recognition of Palestine as a nation state by the UN.  As a state Palestine would have access to the International Criminal Court where not only would these human rights violations be able to be forensically examined but identified Israeli politicians, officials and military personnel could be made personally liable for the worst excesses.

It is this breach of Palestinian human rights by Israel – the settlement programme and the Wall – that go to the heart of the issue today.  Negotiations for peace seem meaningless when the occupying power has taken so much land, and threatens to take more, that a contiguous Palestinian state seems to be ever more unrealisable.  The so-called ‘2 state solution’ becomes impossible and may lead to more and more calls for a 1 state solution.

Finally, my correspondents do not seem to be assiduous students of the British labour movement.  Berating me for calling on the TUC to support a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign seems a little behind the game.

2006 was the breakthrough year for Palestinian solidarity at the TUC Congress.  On three occasions since, Congress has firmed up its support for the Palestinian people.  The 2011 Congress carried a motion committing unions to “work closely with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to actively encourage affiliates, employers and pension funds to disinvest from, and boycott the goods of, companies who profit from illegal settlements, the Occupation and the construction of the Wall”. At the 2012 Congress, a motion was passed committing Congress House to organising with PSC a delegation to Gaza “to determine how the TUC may most effectively contribute to the end of the blockade”.

The progress made at the TUC Congress over the past six years show the strength of opinion among British trade unionists is such that they will not stand idly by when the combined weight of IDF weaponry rains down on a largely defenceless and undefended people in Gaza.

In the situation of Palestine and Israel, Unite takes its inspiration from the Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid church leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has said that “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Luke Akehurst’s personal response to McCluskey email

Dear Len,

Thank you for taking the time to reply to the emails you have received about the union’s statement on Gaza.

I appreciate the effort taken to respond but I am disappointed that you chose to dismiss the people writing to you by saying “few, if any, appear to be members of Unite” when my own email started by stating:

“I have been a member of Unite and its predecessor unions since 1993. I am very proud to represent Unite as a delegate on my local CLP GC and previously served on the TGWU national youth committee, representing the TGWU at TUC Youth and Young Labour conferences, and was for a decade a member of the Amicus London Region Political Committee. I have been a union-sponsored candidate in two General Elections.

I voted for you in the General Secretary election and encouraged many others to do the same.”

I was pleased to see that you state in your reply:

“No political or other support has been offered by Unite to Hamas and we remain wary of it, not least because of the banishment of the PGFTU from Gaza when Hamas assumed the government there.”

However, I would hope you would go further than being “wary” of Hamas given that when it came to power PGFTU, a free trade union, was violently driven out of Gaza and a Hamas front union put in its place.

I would dispute that Israel’s actions in Operation Pillar of Defence were “disproportionate” whilst agreeing with your use of the word “asymmetric”. The situation was asymmetrical: Israel used carefully targeted surgical strikes while Hamas fired indiscriminately. The conflict was also asymmetrical in its targeting. Israel directed its actions against the military targets of the terrorist organizations. The terrorists exclusively targeted civilians. Israel’s response was a belated and measured attempt to put an end to rocket fire which had gone on for years with the aim of terrorising the 4.5m Israeli civilians (Arabs as well as Jews) within range of Gaza.

You cite UN Security Council Resolution 242 and note that it called for the “withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The quotation is telling. It says “territories” not “all the” or “the territories”, leaving clear that Israel might acquire some of the territories in any peace settlement. Lord Caradon (Hugh M. Foot) was the permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations, 1964-1970, and chief drafter of Resolution 242. He repeatedly stated that 242 was not intended to force Israel to accept the pre-1967 ceasefire line as a permanent border. He is quoted at length about this here: http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=118&x_article=1267

As UN Security Council Resolution 338 refers to 242, it follows that it also allows for changes to the borders as a result of peace negotiations.

If we are serious about peace, a return to the pre-1967 ceasefire line involves increased risk of war, as it is not a long-term, secure, defensible frontier for Israel and a re-run of the Arab armies’ aggression in 1967 would be incentivised.

You cite the 4th Geneva Convention and correctly note it “forbids the transfer of its civilian population by the occupying power into the occupied territory”. Israel has not “transferred” its civilian population, some of them have moved voluntarily. The 4th Geneva Convention was designed to stop forced deportations of the type perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin, not to stop people buying flats in new towns on what you consider to be the “wrong side” of an arbitrary 1940s ceasefire line.

You mention the annexation of East Jerusalem. I would be interested to know if you think it is unreasonable for the historic Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem to be under Israeli control, as this sits in East Jerusalem.

Quite what connection there is between any of the issues you cite in the West Bank (where Fatah stayed out of the recent conflict) and Hamas firing rockets from Gaza is unclear.

You even mention the Golan Heights, an area which has no Palestinian links and is a matter for negotiation with Syria, should that tragic country every get a stable government one could negotiate with.

You attack the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank. You incorrectly say that this is “an 8 metre high concrete Wall”. This is only true of 5% of it in urban areas where it is needed to stop sniper fire. The other 95% is a fence. Similar barriers exist in other conflict situations such as Cyprus and Northern Ireland. They are a sad necessity when trying to stop terrorism. The barrier has saved many lives. From the beginning of the Second Intifada until the construction of the “first continuous segment” of the barrier in July 2003, 73 Palestinian suicide bombings were carried out from the West Bank, killing 293 Israelis and injuring over 1,900. However, between August 2003 and the end of 2006, only 12 attacks were carried out based in the West Bank, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445. The trend continued into 2007 and 2008 as well. The number of fatalities due to terror attacks has continued to exhibit a steady decline since 2002, from 452 in 2002 to 9 in 2010.

I find your suggestion that the Palestinians should use the ICJ to pursue Israel over alleged violations extremely unhelpful in building the kind of reconciliation between the two peoples that will be needed for a lasting peace. Both sides will need to look to the future, not settle scores. Israel would be morally justified in using a similar approach to pursue Hamas leaders over the rocket attacks on civilians.

You express scepticism about the viability of a two state solution yet the land Israel has made any claim to is almost identical to that reported by Dennis Ross as tabled at Camp David in 2000 (which included the recently controversial E1 deal), which was widely seen as a very generous deal for the Palestinians. Had they accepted it there would have been a viable Palestinian state, with West Bank contiguity, being built these last 12 years, and no security barrier as this was a reaction to the alternative path the Palestinians took, the Second Intifada.

The alternatives to a two state solution are horrific: a continuation of the status quo, with the occupation, in perpetuity, or an unstable bi-national state that would end in the kind of horrors seen in Yugoslavia, and which neither side wants as it denies the aspirations to statehood and self-determination of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples.

I would urge you to read Human Rights Watch’s recent report condemning Hamas’ rocket attacks as war crimes: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/24/gaza-palestinian-rockets-unlawfully-targeted-israeli-civilians

When you have read it, please let me know how our union can have issued a statement on this subject without condemning, acknowledging or even mentioning the Hamas war crimes of rocket fire.

It is not balanced for you to refer to “IDF weaponry [that] rains down on a largely defenceless and undefended people in Gaza” without mentioning the indiscriminate use of rockets against Israeli civilians by Hamas.

I would like to see Unite throw its weight behind efforts to get Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists working together as force for peace, and to give practical support to pro-peace political forces in Israel and Palestine, not to be issuing statements that appear wholly one-sided. This was the vital role the labour movement played in helping resolve the Northern Ireland conflict.

I would be very happy to bring together a group of Unite members who share these concerns for a private discussion with you, if you would find that useful.

Best wishes,
Luke Akehurst