Taboo at the TUC: the Palestinian Right of Return (Labournet)

Taboo at the TUC: the Palestinian Right of Return

Report by Greg Dropkin
Published: 25/04/07

Last September the TUC Congress passed a strong declaration of principles on Palestine, moved by the FBU. It began

Congress supports:the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination;
the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland;
the withdrawal of Israeli troops from all occupied territories; and
the removal of the illegally constructed ‘apartheid wall’

The motion did not mention boycott, disinvestment, or sanctions. Now a composite motion from Merseyside and West Midlands TUC’s to next month’s annual conference of TUC’s includes a mild call “to consider a consumer boycott campaign of Israeli goods and trade, similar to the successful campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa”.

The TUC reacted by demanding the composite be amended to eliminate any reference to… the Right of Return!

Merseyside TUC were gobsmacked, but in March they were informed that despite a full debate and a vote in favour, last year’s Congress motion from the FBU had not actually become TUC policy because the General Council had reservations.

These concerned the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and their families, who were displaced during the ethnic cleansing of 1948 which accompanied the creation of Israel. Many of these exiles and their descendants now languish in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza – still occupied in reality) and across the Arab world.

The Palestinian Right of Return is enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and remains a key Palestinian demand. At the recent televised “Doha Debate” in Qatar, re-broadcast by the BBC, 82% of the audience rejected the proposal that Palestinians should abandon the Right of Return.

Apparently, the sticking point for the TUC is that the Right of Return is not included in Britain’s preferred diplomatic package for the Middle East Peace Process, the “Road Map” formulated in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The idea that TUC policy is limited by the diplomatic posture of the British Government is interesting. Did the TUC require approval from the Foreign Office in the Thatcher era when adopting policy on apartheid South Africa?

Be that as it may, last year Congress had a full debate while the General Council expressed their reservations. But now the annual conference of TUC’s may not read let alone debate a composite which mentions the Right of Return. The General Council didn’t like that part of the motion passed at last year’s Congress. So it’s taboo. You can’t say fairer than that!

The story came to light by accident, when Merseyside TUC President Alec McFadden mentioned the TUC response to members of Liverpool Friends of Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who were leafletting the North-West TUC in Wigan on 24 March. Activists recalled last year’s motion and raised it with national TUC officer Tom Wilson who was present. He said that if our memory proved correct, the Merseyside – West Midlands reference to the Right of Return would be reinstated.

McFadden wrote to Wilson citing the text of last year’s motion and asking:

1. The point about the right of Palestinian refugees being able to return to their homeland needs to be re-inserted into the joint Merseyside / West Midlands composite, as does encouraging all affiliates to affiliate to Palestine Solidarity.2. Why was such a major error able to occur? Some of my delegates are very suspicious and we request an audit trail to be carried out.

Sean Bamford of the TUC International Dept. replied on behalf of Tom Wilson on 27 March:

Dear Colleagues,For some reason Tom did not get this but he has asked me to forward his following reply:

By all means forward this reply to Alec and those he copied in, which should put minds at rest. There is certainly no conspiracy.

It was not an error. The general Council expressed a reservation on the point about the right to return. A reservation by the General Council on a point means that point of the motion is not policy as explained or specified in the reservation. The General Council reservation in this case was that the Road map did not include the right to return. This reservation was explained in a note at the end of the motion in the paper put to the TUCJCC.

The other point was calling for a TUCJCC delegation to visit Palestine and Israel. That was taken out because such delegations are matters for the general council. That too was explained in the note at the end of the motion.


Sean Bamford
Policy Officer
European Union and International Relations Department

It was funny, but it also matters.

Blocking a delegation appears to mean that the Trades Councils AGM cannot decide to pay a visit abroad at its own expense and for its own legitimate purposes. Are such links confined to the General Council, even when affiliated unions have their own international links?

The saga raised questions, yet again, about the relationship between the TUC International Dept. and the Foreign Office. Can the TUC adopt its own policy on international questions, or not?

The Right of Return goes to the heart of the Palestinian issue, as the radical Israeli historian Ilan Pappe argues eloquently in his recent book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”. The detailed history of 1947-48 has all the familiar features the world later learned to call “ethnic cleansing” when practiced by Serb ultra-nationalists in the 1990s.

Calling things by their real names is an essential starting point for any eventual solution. Aside from setting the record straight the key practical question, as Pappe stresses, is how to heal the huge scar caused very deliberately in 1948 and sustained ever since, by the Zionist political and military leadership intent on creating a Jewish State. This racially discriminatory concept was enacted on land whose Palestinian inhabitants were being expelled or imprisoned, if not simply killed. The survivors and their families, in their millions, form the Palestinian diaspora. They continue to demand their rights as enshrined in international law, including the right to return or, if they so choose, be compensated.

Naturally TUC Congress has the right to consider this, as does the TUC General Council and the annual conference of TUC’s. Censoring the discussion is absurdly comic and undemocratic. But worse, it pretends that there is a way to resolve the conflict in the Middle East without confronting the dispossession and enforced exile of Palestinian refugees. There is none.

The text of Composite 16, carried at the 2006 TUC Congress, is online which is headed Congress Decisions 2006. The online version does not currently (25 April 2007) mention any reservations by the General Council.

Composite 16 Palestine

Congress supports:

1. the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination;

2. the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland;

3. the withdrawal of Israeli troops from all occupied territories; and

4. the removal of the illegally constructed ‘apartheid wall’.

Congress believes that the achievement of justice for the Palestinians will help bring peace to the Middle East and to the people of Israel.

Congress condemns the Government of Israel’s suspension of revenue payments to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the suspension of aid by the European Union, the United States Administration and others. These actions, which threaten the wages of approximately 160,000 workers and the well-being of the Palestinian people as a whole, are condemned by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions.

Congress condemns the recent Israeli attack on the Gaza City power station, the use of sonic booms over Gaza, and the seizure of members of the democratically elected Palestinian government.

Congress resolves to ask the General Council to:

1. call on the British Government to maintain all funding to the PA and call for the restoration of all EU and other international aid to the PA;

2. pressurise the Government of Israel to restore the revenues collected by them to their rightful owners, the PA;

3. make appropriate representations to the quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN) to take immediate steps to achieve a negotiated settlement based on justice for the Palestinians;

4. raise these issues in the ETUC, ICFTU, Histadrut and ILO and all appropriate international and national bodies;

5. continue to make every effort to promote dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and the building of direct links with Palestinian trade unions;

6. seek to bring about greater cooperation amongst solidarity organisations supporting the rights of the Palestinian people, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and encourage all affiliates to affiliate; and

7. call on the British Government to make public its concern at Israel’s continued attacks on Gaza.

Mover: Fire Brigades’ Union

Seconder: Educational Institute of Scotland

Supporter: Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association

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