Middle East

Palestine, Popular Will and Political Repression in Britain


On November 11, 2023, the largest demonstration in support of Palestinian rights in Britain’s history took place in London.

Marchers on Vauxhall bridge road on November 11, 2023 in London, England. Guy Smallman/Getty Images

People of all genders, ages, ethnicities and religions marched together from Hyde Park to the US Embassy in Vauxhall demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Banners and placards were colorful and inventive, the chanting was loud and the march was enormous. The organizers—a coalition of Palestine solidarity, Muslim and anti-war groups—reported that 800,000 people took part. The demonstration filled the whole 2.5-mile route, with the last marchers departing the assembly point five hours after the first ones left. Along the route, people cheered out of their windows in solidarity as the wave of protestors, wearing keffiyehs and waving Palestine flags, passed through the streets.

The date was a significant one to hold a march calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Britain commemorates November 11 as Armistice Day, when the truce was reached to end the fighting of World War I. Government ministers, including prime minister Rishi Sunak, some media outlets and right-wing commentators criticized the anti-war demonstration as “disrespectful” to the annual remembrance event held at the Cenotaph in London.[1] The home secretary, Suella Braverman, branded it a “hate march” and accused the Metropolitan Police of being “biased” in favor of pro-Palestine protestors.[2] Her words helped to provoke a small counterdemonstration from the far-right English Defence League. Amid chants of “England ‘til I die,” this group provoked stand-offs with the police and attempted to attack the Palestine solidarity demonstration. Days later, Braverman was fired from her ministerial position, albeit for violating the ministerial code not for her criticisms of the police or demonstrators.

The demonstration was a stark example of the increasing disconnect between the British establishment and the public when it comes to Palestine over the past few decades.

The demonstration was a stark example of the increasing disconnect between the British establishment and the public when it comes to Palestine over the past few decades. This change can be seen in the popularity of activities such as the “Big Ride for Palestine,” growing support for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement within trade unions, universities and local authorities as well as in the growing number of people at demonstrations. Polls also indicate a shift in public opinion, especially among those under the age of thirty.

In response, the British government has introduced several laws and principles aiming to criminalize and intimidate supporters for Palestinian rights. In 2016, it endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism—widely criticized for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism—and insisted that all British institutions adopt it. In December 2017, it announced a bill to criminalize BDS by barring public institutions, such as local authorities and universities, from introducing boycotts or divestments. On January 10, 2024, amid the ongoing bombardment of Gaza, it was passed by the House of Commons and will now be debated and voted on by the House of Lords. The Bill echoes the Local Government Act of 1988, passed by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which blocked the boycott efforts of local councils to support the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. Notably, the act failed to stop the swell of UK public support to end apartheid in South Africa.

These measures have further enabled pro-Israel groups—such as UK Lawyers for Israel, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre and the Community Security Trust—to intimidate individuals and organizations critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinian rights. They have created a chilling effect and provoked fierce battles in many sectors of British public life. The most prominent example that has continued to have an impact on the Labour party was the scandal surrounding its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in which charges of antisemitism were weaponized by the right-wing of the party to discredit Corbyn and undermine the party’s left, as exposed in Al Jazeera’s documentary, The Labour Files. Disturbingly, many of the Labour members who were accused of antisemitism and expelled from the party are Jewish. Nonetheless, amid increasing efforts to discourage criticism of Israel, May 2023 opinion polls showed support for Palestinians was higher than support for Israel, particularly among young people.[3]

In the first week of the war, an overwhelming majority, 76 percent, favored a ceasefire in Gaza—a number that remained constant over the first three months.

October 7 and what followed has accelerated these dynamics. Despite initial sympathy with Israel after the Hamas attacks, outrage has grown among a British public that is increasingly horrified at the scale and violence of Israel’s ongoing military action in Gaza. In the first week of the war, an overwhelming majority, 76 percent, favored a ceasefire in Gaza—a number that remained constant over the first three months.[4] In addition to regular large-scale demonstrations, there have been sit-ins of railway stations and other civic spaces, walk-outs and occupations at schools and universities, solidarity statements, trade union motions, fundraising events and boycott activities. Artists and actors have used award ceremonies to make statements in support of a ceasefire and for Palestinian self-determination. And there have been various forms of direct action outside the factories and offices of Israeli arms company, Elbit Systems. Local solidarity groups have grown and new ones have sprung up, in addition to the high-profile national organizations, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

In stark opposition to the public displays of support for Palestine, the Conservative government and the main opposition Labour party have voiced unequivocal support for Israel. Most MPs, for example, toed their party’s line and voted against a ceasefire motion in parliament on November 15, 2023. While the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales support a ceasefire, Britain’s foreign policy is the sole responsibility of the Westminster government. On the international stage, Britain has opposed or abstained on ceasefire motions at the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly and is sending military assistance to Israel.

The government’s partisan position has set the tone in workplaces, where activists and supporters of Palestine have encountered hostility. There have been investigations, censorship, vilification on media (particularly doxing), suspension or termination of employment contracts, offers of jobs or consultancies rescinded, arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the revocation of visas for foreign nationals. The policing of political attitudes and erosion of freedom of speech is undeniably racist, with these actions disproportionately impacting Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and people of color.[5] While it is not possible to provide details about these incidences due to confidentiality issues related to ongoing investigations and legal cases, the British Society for Middle East Studies (BRISMES) and the European Legal Support Center have reported receiving a large number of requests for assistance and are charting the impacts on the academic profession.[6] Along with several colleagues, I have written letters for lawyers defending people being investigated or deported.

Despite these repressive measures, the British government and pro-Israel groups will find it difficult to prevent the further erosion of support for Israel among the wider public. Palestine solidarity groups are reporting a surge of interest in their work and predict a large increase in membership. The demonstration of November 11 and other acts of solidarity with Palestinians since October 7 show that people in Britain will no longer ignore Israel’s injustices against Palestinians nor its own government’s support for Israel’s war crimes and apartheid regime—no matter how much censorship or repression is applied.

 

[Mandy Turner is a senior researcher with Security in Context.]

 

This article appears in MER issue 309 “Palestine—Before and After October 7.”

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Adriana Elgueta and Oliver Slow, “Planned Protest on Armistice Day Would be Disrespectful, says Sunak”, BBC News, November 4, 2023.

[2] Suella Braverman, “Police Must Be Even-handed with Protests”, The Times, London, November 8, 2023.

[3] YouGov Poll, May 2023.

[4] YouGov Poll, October 19, 2023.

[5] Institute of Race Relations, “Anti-Palestinian, Suspect Communities, and Racist Backlash,” October 27, 2023.

[6] BRISMES, “The Gaza War and Academic Freedom,” November 29, 2023.

 



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