Alex Snowdon on Palestine, economics and education
The Israeli state killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh has generated widespread shock and outrage. The Al Jazeera broadcaster was shot in the head while wearing a helmet and body armour clearly marked ‘Press’. Israeli police subsequently attacked the coffin bearers and other mourners on the funeral procession for Abu Aqleh outside a hospital in Jerusalem.
The BBC bravely tried to frame this astonishing act of state violence as an outbreak with no clear cause (‘violence breaks out at funeral’) and an even-sided confrontation (‘Israeli police and Palestinians clashed’), but it looked to everyone viewing it like an armed lynch mob assaulting mourners. Which is exactly what it was.
The turnout of thousands for the funeral procession, in annexed east Jerusalem, was one sign of the depth and breadth of Palestinian feeling in response to the killing of Abu Aqleh. She was a household name for Palestinians, and more widely in the Arab world, having become prominent during the Second Intifada two decades ago. Younger Palestinians grew up seeing her report on Israeli attacks and incursions. In the words of Aaya Odeh, a 26-year-old lawyer from Nazareth, “I felt that I am losing my mother, I grew up watching her on TV”.
Palestinian flags were waved on the funeral procession, in defiance of an Israeli ban, and many Palestinians had reportedly circumvented roadblocks to reach it, reflecting not only Palestinian grief and anger but a determination to defy Israeli authorities. For them, the killing of a greatly admired journalist symbolised the escalation of assaults on Palestinians that we have seen in recent weeks.
The virulence of Israel’s response was rooted in supremacist contempt for the Palestinians, accentuated by weakness and desperation: Israeli state authorities have been under pressure from Palestinian resilience and resistance. A video shows an Israeli police officer warning those gathered for the funeral procession to ‘stop these chants and nationalistic songs’. This video was released by Israel as proof of a Palestinian threat to public order, seemingly unaware that nobody else regards chanting and singing as public disorder.
Even Washington felt obliged to issue condemnation of the killing of Abu Aqleh, who was an American citizen and a Palestinian Christian – two factors that made the usual, familiar US responses to Israeli violence untenable. It was also embarrassing for senior Labour Party figures here – Keir Starmer recently made a fanfare of rejecting Amnesty International’s findings that Israel was guilty of crimes of apartheid, while shadow health secretary (and darling of the Labour Right) Wes Streeting was on a Labour Friends of Israel trip last week.
The apologists for Israeli apartheid, however, are desperate to limit their criticisms and move on. They talk only of ‘accountability’, ‘an investigation’ and their ‘sadness’, while trying to narrow the focus to an attack on media freedoms. Many people, though, are aware that these latest outrages are part of a larger pattern and rooted in systematic racist apartheid. They are aware, too, that Israeli apartheid has its enablers in Washington, London and elsewhere: Western countries are directly complicit through the arms trade, economic links and political support.
I was part of Saturday’s powerful national demonstration for Palestine, alongside 15,000 people marching from the BBC headquarters to a rally outside Downing Street. Perhaps the loudest cheers in the rally were when Andrew Murray (Stop the War Coalition) and Kamel Hawwash (Palestine Solidarity Campaign) denounced Starmer’s refusal to oppose Israeli apartheid. We cannot rely on politicians to promote justice for the Palestinians; we must build a movement of solidarity. Saturday’s demonstration was a vital step in building that movement.
Bills up, wages down
The cost-of-living crisis is the dominant issue in domestic politics today. It is likely to be for some time. It was rather surreal, therefore, to find that the Queen’s Speech – which puts forward the government’s programme of legislation – had almost nothing to say about it.
Boris Johnson acknowledged the absence of measures to deal with the crisis, saying that announcements would follow in the coming days. When a Treasury insider responded by admitting they had no idea what he was referring to, it became clear that Johnson had gone off-script, attempting to look like something was being done when it wasn’t. Pure political opportunism at the expense of an actual strategy.
A 3% rise in social security payments, linked to the inflation rate several months ago, is now being overtaken by the sharp rise in inflation. It equates to a real-terms cut of £11 billion. These cuts affect those already in poverty. They cannot afford to wait until autumn (at best) for increases.
Pay is also a big issue. There has been wage stagnation since 2010, with real-terms cuts for many groups of workers. This is set to get much worse. It has been calculated that if average annual income had grown in line with previous trends since 2005-06, forecasts for 2025-26 would be for £11,000 higher average income than it is actually projected to be.
This represents an historic decline in the portion of wealth going to working people in Britain. The erosion of working class living standards is making inequality even worse. It isn’t the case that everyone is ‘in it together’ – it is mainly working class people who are seeing a deterioration, with the poor hit the hardest, while the wealthy are protected.
This forms the backdrop to the TUC national demonstration on 18 June. Pay will be the core issue, but it needs to be built on a broader basis: this is about resisting a general Tory assault on the working class. The demonstration must bring together everyone who wants to push back against the Tories and build mass resistance to the government.
This will not automatically happen. Elements of the trade union leaderships are overly cautious or guilty of underestimating the potential for the demonstration. The drive to make 18 June a milestone for the movement needs to be taken into every community and every workplace. This requires demands and slogans than channel widespread popular anger, together with grasping the scale of the Tory offensive and its impact.
Schools need investment
One area that the Tories remain silent on is investment in schools. It has emerged that they – and Department for Education officials – have been discussing the scandal of crumbling schools in private though. A leak of emails sent by DfE officials has revealed that it’s considered necessary for the number of school rebuilding projects to be boosted from 50 to 300.
DfE officials have reportedly pushed for £13 billion from the Treasury for school repairs and building projects. A leaked email refers to the ‘risk to life’ that currently exists due to the terrible, and often unsafe, condition of many schools. The situation is so severe because investment in rebuilding schools has declined sharply over the last decade or so.
There were many things to criticise about Labour’s schools policies between 1997 and 2010, but the biggest positive was serious (if necessary) investment in school buildings. In 2011, Michael Gove – then education secretary – scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme. Investment has never been restored. The result is too many schools that are unsafe or unfit for purpose. Kevin Courtney, National Education Union joint general secretary, has called for the government ‘to show much more ambition and urgently address these issues in a strategic way’.
That won’t happen without considerable pressure on a government that isn’t bothered about the conditions in which millions of children are learning in day by day, or the working conditions of school staff. This is one of many issues where we need to impose different and better priorities on the Tories.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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