Suella DeVille & the UK government’s criminalisation of Palestine solidarity
A young girl, visibly of Middle Eastern descent, walks along a London street, a Palestinian flag draped casually across her shoulders. She is in her late teens, the flush of youth casting a luminous glow across her innocent face as she laughs and jokes with her friend. But this cheery scene does not lift my spirits. Instead, a sense of foreboding overtakes me the moment I set eyes her. I fear she may be arrested, imprisoned even, for showing a hint of compassion for a nation that has been suffering for decades. For simply having a heart.
This is the risk faced by anyone in the UK or across parts of Europe who is considering expressing public sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza who have been living in what the UN describes as an ‘open prison’ for decades. A people who are, as I write, being mass murdered by indiscriminate Israeli bombing after it cut off their water, electricity and food supplies - an action described as war crimes by leading human rights groups.
In the British government’s latest demonstration of flagrant anti-Palestinian racism, Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has set out a list of stringent criteria applying only to pro-Palestine protests. This not only risks making a mockery of democracy and undermining freedom of speech, but it could also lead to the criminalisation of ordinary people like the young girl I saw, who dare to express solidarity with Palestinians living under a brutal occupation and apartheid.
''The normalisation of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hate in Europe since 7 October is shocking as it is silent. The implication that all those who support the Palestinian cause also support terrorism is pernicious and offensive. Yet this baseless association has been the weapon with which the government has increased police powers, attempted to restrict freedom of speech and added further fuel to a climate of fear for many Muslims.''
The restrictions include the risk of arrest for voicing pro-Palestinian chants such as: “From the river to the sea” and waving the Palestinian flag. The justification is that these actions may be seen as a form of harassment or intimidation towards Britain’s Jewish communities, or worse, as glorifying acts of terrorism.
The irony here is unmissable: in true Kafkaesque fashion, if you seek justice; if you oppose oppression; if you attempt to make a stand for human rights, you yourself become hunted. It is a punishment borne on a warped logic and a perverse distortion of morality that is being meted out from the highest levels of government.
And it may get worse.
In Germany and France, all demonstrations supporting Palestine are now banned, though many have ignored the rulings and have taken to the streets regardless, despite, in the case of France, being attacked with tear gas and water cannons and in Germany’s case, being physically attacked by police.
It’s feared other European countries, including the UK, may soon follow suit and impose a blanket ban on all such protests.
There are, of course, legal implications to these crackdowns, and activists say they will take appropriate action if they are prevented from exercising their rights of freedom of expression and assembly.
For now, at least, Braverman’s threats are widely being treated with the contempt they deserve, with Saturday’s demonstration in London attracting more than 150,000 people.
I attended in a journalistic capacity and was overwhelmed by its harmonious atmosphere, as well as its diversity. I rubbed shoulders with people of all backgrounds and beliefs: black, white, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, all peacefully making a stand against Israel’s bombardment and siege on Gaza. No doubt some high-profile British people, including Zac Goldsmith, Douglas Murray and Andrew Neil, who denounced the protestors and accused them of being pro-Hamas, must be pulling their hair and wringing their hands in vexation that a mere 15 people were arrested – and none of them for supporting terrorism or inciting violence.
For many, Braverman’s restrictions are the expression of the complicity of the British Government in Israel’s actions as it continues to break international law by its relentless and barbaric shelling of more than two million people, around half of whom are children, which has already led to over 2,800 deaths.
The ruling is seen as part of a wider systemic campaign to dehumanise Palestinians living in the occupied territories and to shut down any support for them.
Furthermore, this is all being aided and abetted by large sections of Western media where anti-Semitism has been weaponised to attack Palestine solidarity in recent years.
When warning of spikes in anti-Semitic attacks in the UK – which must undoubtedly be condemned – some networks ran footage of banners or wall graffiti stating: “Free Palestine”. It is hard to imagine how calling for an end to occupation can be read as anything other than what it states. But once again, the motivation here seems apparent.
The most ominous example of Western media’s manipulation of its population is the recent story claiming Hamas beheaded 40 babies in the Kfar Aza village in Southern Israel. The unverified story was splashed on the front pages on many UK newspapers, including in the Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Sun, The Independent and others. It was widely circulated on social media and repeated by world leaders, including US President, Joe Biden. Yet, to date, the claims remain unsubstantiated.
But the story has already had the desired effect. Public perception about the UK’s response to Israel’s clear breach of international law seems to have been swayed in the government’s favour, while any voices that don’t support its narrative have all but been silenced on most mainstream platforms, or at least relegated to their fringes.
The British government’s complicity with Israel’s actions in Gaza has also enabled influential public figures to conflate what is, at its core, an issue of international law and human rights, into a religious one. By doing so, they have used their platforms to stoke anti-Muslim hate with impunity.
In a recent article for the Daily Express, Richard Ferrer, the editor of the British publication Jewish News, wrote that Hamas’s attack was “plain and simply historic Islamic bloodlust, passed down through the generations from birth”. He later changed the word “Islamic” to ‘Islamist” but by then he had already made his views clear.
Similarly, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Jake Wallis Simons, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that, “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult that sacralised bloodshed. Not all, but many Muslims are brainwashed by it”. He later deleted the post and denied having written it, even when challenged live on British television.
To say that these statements are bigoted, inflammatory, could quite possibly stoke violence and unrest and may even be illegal, is saying the obvious. But to date, the comments have gone unchallenged by British authorities.
The repercussions of all this are chilling. Tell Mama reported that Metropolitan Police figures show a rise of 87% in anti-Muslim incidents between 29 September and 12 October, compared with the same period last year. Muslims have been subjected to verbal slurs, have had the words “killers, terrorists” written on their front doors and, in the case of a mosque in Lancashire, a pig’s head was dumped in front of the building. Yet, once again, this has received little attention in the British press.
The normalisation of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hate in Europe since 7 October is shocking as it is silent. The implication that all those who support the Palestinian cause also support terrorism is pernicious and offensive. Yet this baseless association has been the weapon with which the government has increased police powers, attempted to restrict freedom of speech and added further fuel to a climate of fear for many Muslims.
All the while, Israel is given a resounding thumbs-up as it starves Palestinians, uses white phosphorus on them, bombs hospitals and kills journalists as well as aid workers.
It seems unlikely that Israel or any of its Western apologists will ever be held to account for their depravity, which will mean that it’s the likes of the innocent young girl I saw who will pay a dubious price for expressing any humanity towards the people of Gaza.
Shamim Chowdhury is a London-based award-winning journalist and writer.
Follow her on Twitter (X): @shamimjourno
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.