Labour and Palestine: a case of unwelcome ‘friends’

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If you’ve seen the Monty Python film where the Judean People’s Front were enemies of the People’s Front of Judea, this story will sound a bit familiar. Here in Britain we have “Labour Friends of Palestine” and “Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East”.

The latter group — LFPME for short — is recognised by the Labour party and has formal backing from more than 100 of its MPs, including the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. LFPME describes itself as “a voluntary group within the Labour movement” that supports a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. Its website says:

“We work with Labour MPs in parliament to help keep them up to date on the situation in Palestine and the Middle East as well as to ensure these issues are raised regularly in parliament.

“We also work to raise awareness of the situation in Palestine through: participation in political conferences, speaking engagements, events in parliament, producing briefings and promotional material, campaigning on key issues, hosting cultural events, and organising delegations for parliamentarians to witness the reality of the situation on the ground.”

LFPME is active on both Facebook and Twitter. It set up its Twitter account in April 2009 but in December 2017 someone else set up an account which uses the name “ Labour Friends of Palestine”. It’s possible this was not its original name, because its earliest tweets were not about Palestine — almost all of them were defending the Assad regime in Syria.

Tweets posted on its first day of operation tagged Vanessa Beeley, the regime’s favourite propagandist, and 21st Century Wire, the conspiracy theory website that she often writes for. One tweet supported Beeley’s campaign against the White Helmets civil defence organisation that worked in rebel-held areas and another linked to an article about Aleppo on the website of Veterans Today, a conspiracy theory group in the United States.

Also tagged in the first day’s tweets were Guardian columnist George Monbiot and Birmingham University professor Scott Lucas — two regular targets of the Assadists.

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Tweets from the account’s first day of operation

When contacted yesterday by email, LFPME (the group backed by Labour MPs) said the “Labour Friends of Palestine” account was nothing to do with them and they knew nothing about it — “This is the first time we have come across it.” They added that they have now reported it to Twitter “as we want to ensure there is no confusion going forward”.

The page header of the “Labour Friends of Palestine” account shows a Palestinian flag and a photo of the late John Smith who was Labour leader from 1992 until his sudden death in 1994.

Apart from that, its connections with the Labour party are unclear. It dislikes Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, and informed him in a tweet last February: “ ur days in the party are numbered”. On the other hand it’s plainly a fan of former Labour MP George Galloway, who was expelled from the party in 2003 for bringing it into disrepute.

“Labour Friends of Palestine” concerns itself with a lot of things besides Palestine and Labour party in-fighting. It doesn’t post many tweets of its own but does retweet a lot. Recent retweets show support for Brexit, Julian Assange, Putin’s Russia, the Corbyn wing of the Labour party, the Assad regime in Syria, the yellow vest protests in France, the presidency of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and a book that says vaccines cause autism.

The account’s 161 followers include Gilad Atzmon, the jazz musician who has controversial views on Israel, plus quite a lot of Americans — a weird mix of Trump supporters, “truth” seekers and “redeemed” Christians.

Among the account’s other followers, there are nine familiar names from the world of conspiracy theories and pro-Assad propaganda:

@PiersRobinson1
@Tim_Hayward_
@RenieriArts
@stand_withSyria
@Shelaco
@cynthiamckinney
@cerumol
@suegrant54321
@Ian56789

@PiersRobinson1 is Piers Robinson, convenor of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media” which not only defends the Assad regime against accusations of using chemical weapons but also disputes Russia’s use of a nerve agent against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Britain last year (see previous blog posts here, here and here). Last year Robinson wrote a review of a book by two 9/11 truthers, describing it as a “diligent and painstaking work”. His name appears on the book’s back cover, endorsing it as “authoritative and carefully argued”. Until recently he was a professor in the journalism department at Sheffield University.

@Tim_Hayward_ is Tim Hayward, a professor at Edinburgh University and a founding member of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media”. Last July he announced on Twitter that he had joined the Labour party “to get a government guided by Corbyn’s principles”.

@RenieriArts — Romanian-born artist Carmen Renieri — makes regular appearances in the Assadist network.

@stand_withSyria is another regular in the network.

@Shelaco is Sheila Coombes, organiser of “ Media on Trial”, a controversial series of events aimed discrediting mainstream media coverage of the war in Syria. Members of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media” have taken part in Media on Trial’s conferences.

@cynthiamckinney is Cynthia McKinney, an American 9/11 “truther” who once ran for president as Green Party’s candidate. She was scheduled to speak at a Media on Trial event but pulled out when the intended venue in Leeds refused to host it. She has an article on Tim Hayward’s website celebrating Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

@cerumol is Robert Stuart who has spent several years promoting claims that a BBC Panorama programme which showed the after-effects of an incendiary attack in Syria was faked.

@suegrant54321 (“Bird On A Mission”) supports Stuart’s activities and those of Media on Trial.

Finally, there’s @Ian56789 — Ian Shilling, better known as “Ian56” — whose automaton-like tweeting (at an average rate of 65 tweets a day) led to him being wrongly indentified as a Russian bot. Shilling’s world is one where conspiracies and false flags are the norm rather than the exception — a world in which even the Holocaust is seen as a Zionist plot. According to one of his tweets, Zionists in the US and Britain “wanted the Holocaust and funded Hitler, so that Israel could be set up on a wave of sympathy after WW2”.

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Originally published at https://al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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