Husam Zomlot: The diplomat who insists Palestine's future will be a collective effort

Ambassador draws on London's streets for hope and insists Palestinian politics is the business of the Palestinians alone

Left: Husam Zomlot. Right: Protestors march down Regent Street during the 'Ceasefire Now Stop The Genocide In Gaza' national UK demonstration in London. AP / Getty Images
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A protest is an unlikely platform for an overseas diplomat, yet for Palestinian representatives across Europe the need to take a higher profile has been all-consuming since the launch of the Israel-Hamas war last October.

The streets are where Palestinian Ambassador Dr Husam Zomlot believes the “sea change” in the UK's position on the Palestinian issue is being driven. Almost every fortnight for the past six months, he has addressed the hundreds of thousands gathered in London at national demonstrations for Palestine.

Most UK politicians have shunned or shied away from this stage, but popular support for the Palestinian cause offers a glimmer of hope for Dr Zomlot, who was born in a refugee camp in Gaza and has lost dozens of direct family members in the continuing war.

In media interviews and in the private events he ceaselessly attends to help maintain the Palestinian cause's profile, his face brightens as he speaks of the changes happening in the UK, which he has witnessed over the past six months.

“We’re on the right path,” he told journalists at a press briefing in January, reminding them that the anti-apartheid campaign – which brought down South Africa's repressive system of racial segregation – originated in meeting rooms and along barricades erected on UK streets.

His staff – an eclectic group of young Palestinian diplomats, lawyers and humanitarians – are often there with him, working round the clock to meet his engagements and invitations to speak.

With passion and conviction Dr Zomlot insists that justice will be achieved through institutions like the UN and international courts – not by violence.

Drawing on Western human rights movements, he has spoken at the London church where Martin Luther King made his first UK speech, and relentlessly reminds the UK of its historic responsibility in Palestine.

This growing influence prompted an Arab news outlet to ask him whether he was the Palestinian Nelson Mandela – a title usually reserved for Marwan Barghouti, the 64-year-old political leader languishing in an Israeli prison.

This raised attention comes with a downside as well.

When false reports emerged earlier this month that he had been dismissed from his post in the UK, the news went viral. Palestinian officials were quick to publicly dismiss the claim, followed by the Wafa state news agency.

Some believe the campaign to have been an inside job, others point to foreign involvement. This speculation is an indication of the challenges plaguing the Palestinian Authority – which Zomlot represents in the British capital.

Engaging Westminster has been his task since 2018 and is where his regular and persistent presence is beginning to bear fruit.

Dr Zomlot came to the UK four years ago after his US posting was cut short by the Trump administration, which closed down the Palestinian Mission in Washington and revoked his visa.

At an event in the House of Commons last year marking 75 years since the Nakba, Dr Zomlot lamented that no UK minister had responded to his invitations to commemorate the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948.

Politicians who had largely ignored Dr Zomlot before October 7 then made a point of avoiding him in public in the attack’s aftermath.

His appearance alongside David Lammy at the Labour party conference two days after the attacks was cancelled. The then-Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told local media he would not share a platform with the Ambassador, adding that he spoke and met with him privately.

Shifts in the UK's thinking on the Palestinian issue have since rehabilitated him. In fact, both government and opposition are at pains to show that their support for Israel's military campaign also comes with a desire for peace in the region.

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Pressure has grown on the UK government to suspend its arms sales to Israel and to reveal the legal advice it has received.

In January, the Foreign Secretary David Cameron announced at the UN that the UK would be ready to recognise the State of Palestine “sooner rather than later”. If implemented, what was mooted as the Cameron Declaration at the time would in effect remove Israel’s veto power over Palestinian statehood.

With Dr Zomlot looking on – and afterwards engaging with Lord Cameron – there were few in the room who did not immediately grasp the significance of what they had just heard about the UK's official stance on the issue.

Weeks later, the UK sanctioned four illegal settlers accused of violence in the West Bank.

These developments are just some of the signs that the international community is gearing to take a peace process into their own hands – making decisions that could bypass Israel.

In this top-down approach, the peace process would begin with a UN Security Council Resolution recognising Palestinian statehood and accountability for Israeli war crimes through the international courts.

But the road to recognition may still be long. Last week, the US vetoed and the UK abstained on a UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood.

Dr Zomlot’s challenge now is to convince diplomats that the Palestinian Authority, which faces major pressure to reform so that it can administer Gaza after the war – is up to the job.

The PA was formed in 1993 as a result of the Oslo Accords. However, its control is limited by the interim nature of the accords as well as the overbearing Israeli occupation, damaging its integrity.

It is now seeking to rebrand itself by forming a new technocratic government that will administer all Palestinian territories including Gaza when the war ends, with the backing of the international community.

Dr Zomlot recently called on the international community to push for an “enabling environment” for the new technocratic government, in which its powers would not be limited by the Israeli occupation.

He has also insisted that disagreements between Palestinian parties – chiefly between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation ruling party Fatah and Hamas, which currently governs Gaza, is no one’s business but the Palestinians'.

The need for the emergence of a vibrant and successful Palestinian movement from the ashes of war is one of Dr Zomlot’s most firmly held beliefs.

If there is a Mandela comparison to be made at this moment, it is not with Zomlot himself, but with the dignity and fortitude of the Palestinian people, he has insisted to the Arab media that raised the question.

The possible release of Mr Barghouti as part of a hostage exchange between Hamas and Israel could radically change the Palestinian political landscape, and would be welcomed by Fatah, the PA’s ruling party.

Yet the future of a Palestinian state that steps up to fulfil its destiny will lie in a collective effort. The nation's moment of having a single charismatic leader was over. Every Palestinian, he told the same outlet, is a Mandela.

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Updated: April 27, 2024, 5:07 PM