Giving evidence at the home affairs select committee on Monday, the Labour leader said that he had used the phrase to describe the militant groups during a meeting in parliament in 2009.
“The language I used at that meeting was actually here in parliament and it was about encouraging the meeting to go ahead, encouraging there to be a discussion about the peace process,” he said.
Asked whether he still regarded Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”, the Labour leader said: “No. It was inclusive language I used which with hindsight I would rather not have used. I regret using those words, of course.”
His comments came during the committee hearing into antisemitism within the party. Allegations of prejudice against Jewish people by Ken Livingstone, an MP and several ordinary members have been raised over the past eight months.
Corbyn also expressed regret at his choice of words at a press conference launching an internal party report into antisemitism last week, which led to disputed claims he was drawing a parallel between Israel and Islamic State.
Corbyn told the event last week that Jews were “no more responsible for the actions of Israel” than Muslims were for the “various self-styled Islamic states or organisations”. Corbyn had intended to refer to states of an Islamic character, giving the examples of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran or Hamas in Gaza.
At the select committee, Corbyn said: “It would have been better, with hindsight – and many things are much better with hindsight, as every one of us around this table is well aware – if I had said Islamic countries rather than states.”
Labour’s leader also clashed with one of his own MPs over claims the grassroots group Momentum has hounded those who have tried to raise the subject within the party. Chuka Umunna challenged Corbyn about the activities of Momentum, calling them a “party within a party”. Umunna said he was drawing a “direct correlation and line of causation between some of the acts of antisemitism we have seen in the Labour party and the activities of Momentum”.
He added: “One of the things I have found most insulting about this issue of antisemitism in our party is the suggestion that I or any other member of our party has raised this issue because we are somehow disgruntled, careerist Blairites.”
Corbyn replied that the Momentum leader, Jon Lansman, had been “very firm” on issues of antisemitism and racism. “Momentum is a place where many people who have come into political activity for the first time, or returned to political activity, are activating themselves on housing issues, on transport issues, on wage issues, and many, many other issues. Surely that degree of engagement in political activity is a good thing?” Corbyn said.
“Nobody should be criticised for raising concerns about racism at any time or in any forum,” he added.
Corbyn told the committee he was alarmed at reports of antisemitic comments made by Labour members since his election as leader in 2015. He said that appropriate action had been taken by the party’s compliance unit and fewer than 20 activists had been suspended while their cases were investigated.
Asked if he had ever witnessed antisemitism during his time in the party, Corbyn said he had, but that it was a long time ago and not in his constituency of Islington North. He said he was “content” at the reinstatement as a Labour member of the vice-chair of Momentum, Jackie Walker, who was suspended earlier this year after saying Jews were the “chief financiers of the slave trade”.
“Jackie Walker is a woman of black Jamaican heritage and European Jewish heritage,” he said. “I think she is somebody that does have a deep understanding of issues of racism that have affected her and her family in her life.”
Tory former minister Tim Loughton challenged Corbyn about the views of his communications director, Seumas Milne. Loughton pointed out that Milne had “praised Hamas for their spirit of resistance” at a rally and “chanted that they will not be broken”. Corbyn said he was unaware of the incident.
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