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Thursday, June 30, 2011 

Raed Salah and the impossibility of making up our minds.

One of the sad certainties of becoming involved in the Israel/Palestine debate is that whichever side you're the more sympathetic towards you'll quickly find yourself in the company of those with deeply unpleasant conspiratorial or political opinions. Whether it's Melanie Phillips, confident a second genocide is just around the corner and this country is going through the period before a pogrom, or any of the innumerable pro-Palestinian activists that give a highly misleading impression of Israel as an apartheid state, not to mention those who think that giving complete support to Hizbullah or Hamas is going to bring a political settlement nearer, trying to remain above the gutter is a difficult task.

It's fair to say then that Sheikh Raed Salah doesn't exactly have the cleanest of hands. To the great embarrassment of the home secretary, if not the UK Borders Agency, Salah despite being banned from entering the country, his presence deemed by to be "not conducive to the public good" managed to sail through security at Heathrow and apparently completely unaware of how he wasn't meant to be here, went on to attend the various meetings he'd been invited to.

Whether Salah's feat was related to how almost no one had heard of him two weeks ago is difficult to tell. The leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel and former mayor of a small city on the border of the West Bank, it's probably best to start with the undisputed facts. In 2005 he admitted to "security offences", having been held on remand for 2 years charged with "membership in and support for a terrorist organization, contact with a foreign agent and money laundering" and was sentenced to three years in prison. In 2009 he was arrested, accused of inciting a riot during protests at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. While there doesn't appear to be any verbatim accounts of what he said, a judge agreed that "his presence could be inciting" and excluded him from the Israeli capital for 30 days. Finally, last year he served a further five months in prison after being convicted of spitting in a police officer's face in 2007 during a protest against excavations near Jerusalem's Mugrabi Gate.

It doesn't seem to be any of these offences though that led to the Home Office deciding he couldn't visit this country. It was almost certainly down to the far more contentious claims on what he's said in the past and which his supporters and he vehemently deny. Easy to verify is that in an interview with Ha'aretz in 2003 he declared that martyrs do indeed receive 70 virgins in paradise (along with the less reported 70 chosen members of his family and friends) and that homosexuality is a crime, although he doesn't elaborate on what the punishment should be. Harry's Place among others have also quoted from Memri's report on anti-Semitism and the myths surrounding 9/11 (PDF), which has Salah repeating the conspiracy theory regarding the "4,000 Jews" who were somehow forewarned of the attacks and didn't go into work at the WTC that day, although he's hardly unique in giving credence to that particular lie.

Most serious of all the accusations made against Saleh is that he invoked the ancient anti-Semitic blood libel slur during a speech in 2007. It also seems to be the one least likely to be accurate. Harry's Place sourced it to a Ha'aretz report which suggested he had been charged with incitement to racism and violence following a speech given during the 2007 protests at the Mugrabi gate. The problem for those claiming this proves Saleh's latent racism is that there doesn't appear to have been any follow-up, either correcting the original or reporting on Saleh's conviction/acquittal. Indeed, considering that Saleh was jailed for his assault on a police officer which occurred around the same time, it more than suggests that the press release issued on behalf of Saleh by the Middle East Monitor, claiming that he was only questioned about the speech at the time and never charged could be nearer the truth. This obviously doesn't mean Saleh definitively didn't make such a statement; it does however cast major doubt on it, doubts which Harry's Place and the journalists who seem to have based their reports on their posts don't seem to have even considered.

Exactly what it was that tipped the balance against Saleh we'll almost certainly never know. In previous cases, like that of Geert Wilders, whose presence back in 2009 was also deemed non-conducive having been invited to show his laughable film Fitna to the House of Lords, the given justification was that his mere being here would "threaten community harmony and therefore public security". As his visit following a successful appeal later in the year showed, such fears were ungrounded. Apart from the change of government, the other key difference between then and now has been the publication of the new Prevent strategy, much welcomed by the anti-Islamists on Harry's Place for its "muscular" stance on no longer working with or funding those who espouse "extremist" causes non-violently.

It is admittedly a relatively thankless task attempting to work out just which unpleasant ideologue might inflame public opinion enough for their mere being here to threaten community harmony and security, and when an issue is as polarised as it is on Israel/Palestine, those responsible are always going to get a kicking from one side. Nonetheless, Saleh's brief stay here was unbelievably predictable in its dullness: he attended a couple of meetings, said what those who invited him expected him to elucidate, and would have almost certainly returned home with the 99.99% of the population unaware he had ever been here. He didn't incite anything approaching hatred, although he hardly lived up to the laughable styling of him as a "Palestinian Gandhi" either. The real questions ought to be for those who invited him in the first place: did they know about the allegations against him and what he truly stands for? It certainly seems like the MPs who invited him didn't. If it's a sad reflection on our society that politicians believe those with views like Saleh are so dangerous that we can't even make our minds up for ourselves by hearing them speak, then those on the opposite side should at least know what those views are before welcoming them with open arms.

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