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UK protesters defy censorship to highlight Israeli apartheid

In our thousands, in our millions: Pro-Palestinian activists in the UK defy censorship and free speech crackdown to protest Israeli apartheid
6 min read
16 October, 2023
Despite government crackdown, hundreds of thousands of protesters have marched across the UK to highlight Israel's apartheid and occupation. The New Arab spoke to some protestors to find out what it's like to be pro-Palestinian in the UK in 2023.

On Saturday, 14 October, more than 150,000 protesters marched through a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of central London to oppose Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, projecting a staggering image of defiance against suggested threats of a crackdown by the UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

For the first time, some feared that even waving a Palestinian flag might give the police cause to arrest them. Although there has been creeping curtailment of resistance against the occupation of the Palestinian territories in the UK – from anti-boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) laws to policies that chill free speech – many aren’t deterred from speaking up against what they consider a call for peace and justice. And that has come with personal conflict.

“It’s hard because you’re standing against the majority of your peers,” said British-Jewish activist Joel Samuels, explaining to The New Arab how there has been steady but slow growth of anti-occupation sentiment among the Jewish community.

Worldwide, waves of protests have erupted after events Saturday, 7 October, involving rocket fire and fighters from Hamas – the group that controls the Gaza Strip and that has been proscribed a terrorist group by some countries – infiltrated the south of neighbouring Israel. Military and civilian prisoners were also taken.

The attack occurred after weeks of hostilities along the Gaza-Israeli border and in the West Bank, the most recent tensions in the 75-year occupation of the Palestinian territories. It also prompted Israel to announce a war as never seen before on the southern enclave, with its strongest allies announcing their support for its coming retaliation.

Around 150,000 Londoners of all nationalities, genders and creeds marched against Israeli apartheid [photo credit: Anu Shukla]

Now, the occupying nation is preparing a massive ground operation in Gaza, with 1.1 million residents in the north encouraged to evacuate to the south. The death toll has reached almost 2,400 in Gaza and the West Bank and 1,200 in Israel, with the latter cutting off electricity, water, food, and fuel imports to Gazans.

Israel’s promise of harm prompted an immediate protest on Monday, 9 October, with thousands standing outside the Israel Embassy in West London carrying placards reading “Freedom for Palestine” and “Sanctions on Israel,” drawing attention to the “root of the bloodshed,” which protesters said was the occupation. It was followed five days later by a march from BBC studios in Portland Place to Whitehall. 

Braverman urged senior police earlier in the week to consider certain demonstration slogans and waving of the Palestinian flag a criminal offence. In a letter, she wrote that police should not restrict themselves to potential offences related to the promotion of Hamas, prompting concerns at the possible effect on free speech.

“You feel like people are speaking on behalf of you when they’re not saying the same thing that you’re saying,” said Samuels of Braverman’s letter, “The government is standing up and saying that someone flying that flag hates me and I know they don’t.”

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Despite warnings, masses turned up for Stop the War’s second demo, with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and British-Palestinian human rights activist Leanne Mohamad addressing the crowd, among others. 

Chants considered by Braverman as incendiary echoed loudly through the air by the crowd comprising all faiths and ethnicities, including “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians” and “Free free Palestine.”

Police made 15 arrests throughout the afternoon and evening, stating the protest “concluded without major issues.”

However, it was clear that even those who had turned up were wary of how the day would pan out, with the government’s unwavering support for Israel high on their mind.

“I told my daughter to wear running shoes in case we needed to get out as we knew the police would not be supporting us,” said a protester, explaining how the home secretary’s comments were “very dangerous” in suggesting supporting Palestine was the same as supporting Hamas and that they were being severely curtailed in their right to protest.

“Free speech is already in danger [but] if we are stifled, it is a very dangerous precedent,” they added, stressing it was important to speak out.

Alongside the government, the Labour Party has supported Israel’s right to defend itself even while observers, including the UN, have pointed to how Israel’s tactics, as well as Hamas’s attacks, could constitute a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions. 

Writer Selma James said supporting Palestine has presented challenges to her, particularly as she is part of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and because of the current political rhetoric in the UK and internal political support for Israel.

“That means repression of every kind, it means racism of every kind, it means the division of the population into race, it means apartheid and we can’t protest it because the laws prevent us from protesting it, which is what they have in mind,” she told The New Arab.

The incursion is the sixth military operation in Gaza since 2006 but across all the occupied Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, human rights group Amnesty International has described how the occupation has resulted in systemic human rights violations against Palestinians. The long-standing protest movement against Israel’s occupation has included BDS calls to pressure Israel to meet its obligations under international law.

The conservative UK government has attempted to curb these efforts, though, through bans on councils from boycotting Israeli products, which will now be set in statute through the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill, awaiting the report stage. It includes a gagging order on even verbally supporting BDS, even on Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law. 

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Critics have called this a severe curtailment of free expression on which a “chilling effect” is already taking hold and could worsen

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a common pro-Palestine cause slogan that some have construed as antisemitic. But what it means is that freedom is not afforded to Palestinians living within Israel and the occupied territories, explains Samuels. 

“What [Braverman] is saying when she says phrases like ‘from the river to the sea’ should be banned, she’s saying that people cannot talk about freedom for 5 million people living in that territory plus 7 million refugees, which is insane,” he says, “It’s absolutely chilling free speech.” 

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram