To walk around London these days is to be immersed in a collective public awakening about the Palestinian struggle. Commuters and cafe-goers can suddenly be seen reading books by prominent Palestinian historians. Palestinian flags hang from apartment windows. Keffiyehs are now a common accessory.
For nearly two months, amid Israel’s ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ October 7 assault on southern Israel, the British public has been mobilizing in unprecedented numbers in defense of Palestinian lives. Hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets every week to urge the UK government to call for a full ceasefire — which it is still refusing to do, even amid the current, temporary cessation of hostilities. Nonetheless, the reverberations are felt strongly in Westminster.
The biggest rally thus far took place in London on Nov. 11; police claimed an attendance of around 300,000, while organizers put the figure closer to 800,000. Either way, it was one of the largest demonstrations in UK history, and by far the biggest turnout for an issue that does not directly impact the lives of most of the protesters.
The record attendance was partly galvanized by Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s attempts in the preceding days to pressure police to cancel the demonstration, branding the protesters as “hate marchers” and accusing them of inciting antisemitism (Braverman was subsequently booted from the cabinet by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak). Yet anyone who has been to one of the demonstrations in the UK’s capital will attest that they are overwhelmingly peaceful, with many families in attendance as well as people from various ethnicities and backgrounds, including queer and Jewish communities.
Organizing such massive demonstrations is no mean feat. The main force behind the protests is the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), in collaboration with other organizations including Stop the War Coalition, the Muslim Association of Britain, and Friends of Al Aqsa. These groups have also been using social media to pressure members of Parliament (MPs) to call for a ceasefire and to amplify their protests to a global audience.
“We’ve received a lot of support,” Ben Jamal, the 60-year-old British Palestinian activist who heads PSC, told +972. “People witness the brutality and dehumanization of Palestinians, and it compels them to demand a ceasefire. Recent weeks have demonstrated that the public is ready to march and express support for Palestine.”
Until now, however, both the Conservative government and the Labour Party opposition are resisting the public pressure, insisting — in line with U.S. President Joe Biden — on the need for “humanitarian pauses” rather than a full ceasefire, and affirming Israel’s right to self-defense. On Nov. 15, MPs voted overwhelmingly to oppose an immediate ceasefire, despite something of a rebellion within the Labour Party. But protest organizers are vowing to continue mobilizing public pressure so long as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continues, even as the government attempts to restrict Brits’ right to protest.
Ever since the Hamas attacks of October 7, which killed around 1,200 Israelis and saw over 240 kidnapped to Gaza, the UK government has been unwavering in its support for Israel’s assault on the besieged Strip — an assault that, at the time of this writing, has killed more than 14,500 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children.
Within a week of the start of the war, the UK deployed surveillance aircraft and naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean, ostensibly to deter a broader regional conflagration. On Oct. 19, Prime Minister Sunak visited Israel and told his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu: “We want you to win.” In Parliament a week later — by which time Israel had killed close to 7,000 Palestinians in Gaza — Sunak stated: “From the start, we have said that the first and most important principle is that Israel has the right to defend itself.”
At the same time, the government has sought to restrict demonstrations expressing solidarity with Palestinians. After then-Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged those planning to protest to stay at home rather than “cause distress,” Braverman (whom Cleverly has since replaced as home secretary) recommended that police clamp down on the waving of Palestinian flags — which they have so far refrained from doing. The UK’s immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, also instructed the Home Office to explore the possibility of revoking the visas of foreign students and workers who “praise Hamas.”
In addition, government officials are seeking to broaden the definition of extremism to include “undermining” British policy and values — a legal move civil rights groups see as a direct threat to freedom of speech — while police are increasing surveillance of schoolchildren.
In order to ensure that the voice of solidarity remains strong despite the threat of governmental repression, PSC has been working closely with legal experts, including those at the European Legal Support Center (ELSC). Alice Garcia, the organization’s advocacy and communication officer, explained that the British government is increasingly “putting a lot of effort into restricting and criminalizing” the right to protest on baseless or trivial grounds.
“People have been arrested for seemingly harmless acts,” she said, noting that a former senior Amnesty International official was arrested for holding a satirical placard. The former home secretary, Garcia continued, “inflamed tensions by spreading a false and distorted picture of the protests” — a strategy “aimed at silencing discussions and advocacy for the Palestinian cause.” Nonetheless, she added, “civic society continues to resist.”
The UK-based human rights organization Liberty has also been defending protesters’ rights. Katy Watts, a lawyer with the organization, explained that the government’s threats — which may violate the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights — have generated widespread discord and confusion. As a result, Liberty has been receiving a large number of requests for legal information from individuals who are hesitant to join demonstrations.
“We are emphasizing [to protesters] that displaying a Palestinian flag is not a criminal offense,” Watts said. “These protests have been peaceful, with minimal arrests, and the organizers have been working with the police to address concerns and allow peaceful demonstrations to proceed.”
Many of the British politicians and media commentators who oppose the demonstrations have claimed that the rallies are hotbeds of antisemitism. The month of October indeed saw a record number of anti-Jewish hate crimes in the UK (though, it should be noted, these figures include incidents such as the ripping down of posters raising awareness about Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, which many see as an anti-Israel thought not inherently antisemitic act). Yet there has been a significant Jewish presence at each of the mass pro-Palestine demonstrations in recent weeks, and Jewish activists are stressing that there is nothing antisemitic about calling for a ceasefire.
“As a Jewish person, it has been challenging,” said Em Hilton, a 32-year-old organizer, campaigner, and co-founder of Na’amod: British Jews Against Occupation. “There’s a need to distinguish criticism of Israel from antisemitism,” she continued, emphasizing that the rise in the latter phenomenon “is horrific, and holding Jews worldwide responsible for Israel’s actions is never acceptable.”
With that said, “the issue of Palestine has arguably always had a lot of support from the [British] public,” Hilton went on, highlighting the “stark contrast” between the growing empathy for Palestinians across the UK and the government’s staunch pro-Israel position. The government, she added, must listen to the public outcry — which has intensified with the growing Palestinian death toll in Gaza — and prioritize an end to the war alongside the release of the Israeli hostages and a negotiated political solution.
Support for Palestine has also been strong among the UK’s queer community. “There is a significant gap between public sentiment, which largely supports a ceasefire and condemns oppression, and the positions taken by the government,” said Jess (who requested to be referred to only by their first name), a member of The Dyke Project, a London-based queer collective that is urging the UK to acknowledge its complicity in the Israeli occupation.
In late October, The Dyke Project replaced advertisements on public transportation with testimonies from queer Palestinians in Gaza — an initiative, Jess explained, that “aimed to dismantle pinkwashing, the process by which the Israeli government presents itself as LGBTQ+ friendly in order to deflect criticism of its treatment of Palestinians. We don’t want to allow this narrative to be enacted in our name.”
A central goal of the group’s actions is to deepen people’s understanding that different struggles against oppression are interconnected. “We encourage queer individuals to recognize the Palestinian cause as their own, to stand for justice, and to not be swayed by misleading portrayals. We stand against all forms of oppression,” said Jess.
Hazem Jamjoum, a Palestinian translator and archivist living in London, believes that people in the UK are feeling betrayed by the impunity that their government and other major powers are granting to Israel to commit atrocities in Gaza. “After two months of undeniable war crimes, requesting a ceasefire is being treated as controversial and almost antisemitic,” he said.
Elaborating on the conflation of pro-Palestine protests and antisemitism, Jamjoum emphasized that “Jewish communities worldwide are [also] shocked by Israel’s actions in the name of Judaism,” and stressed the need to educate people about the history of Zionism.
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The branding of those working to hold the State of Israel to account as antisemites, he added, allows actual antisemites to operate freely. “The spaces where we’re seeing genuine action to fight antisemitism, and fascism more broadly, is in the anti-Zionist movement. This has been the case for decades.”
And for Jamjoum, the crackdown on protesters’ rights is one of the factors that has, ironically, brought so many people out to the streets in the UK. “People can no longer take democracy for granted,” he explained, with the same dynamic now arising in the United States, Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. In this regard, while Palestine is an excuse for right-wing governments to crack down on civil liberties, it is simultaneously a vehicle with which people worldwide are pushing back.