This article is written by Josh White, and was originally published in the Battleground. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
It was a protest against the BBC’s coverage of the Sukkot War. A group calling itself Palestine Action claimed responsibility. According to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Ben Jamal, 100,000 people showed up. The police, of course, disputed that, claiming that though they couldn’t be sure, the demonstration was significantly smaller.
By the time this reporter arrived, tens of thousands lined the streets from the BBC to Oxford Circus.
Right-wingers responded by spinning the demonstrations as ‘celebrations’ of Hamas violence. No placards I saw endorsed Hamas’ atrocities.
Following Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who proposed outlawing Palestinian flags on the third day of the war, some rightists are calling for a ban on solidarity protests altogether. For example, neocon writer Douglas Murray has been making the case for the mass deportation of “Hamas supporters.” Not that there are many of them in the United Kingdom, but it’s helpful to tarnish Palestinian solidarity politics this way. It makes British Jews scared.
Murray has even suggested that Israel expel Palestinians from Gaza.
Then there’s the noise. Much has been made of the chants heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in recent years.
UK news media often point to the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” as though it was a call to Antisemitic genocide. To be expected, The Jewish Chronicle reiterated the point in the first paragraph of its feature on the march, and The Guardian felt obligated to mention its use at the protest, too.
The bias of the otherwise wholly distinct papers could not be more clear. But it also reflects ignorance of British solidarity politics typical of the country’s mainstream press. Specifically, its preference for transforming Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) into a secular, multiethnic democracy. Of course, that would be threatening to Brexit-era conservatives, nostalgic for empire. That’s why they’re so attached to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As it turned out, “Free, free Palestine!” was the most popular chant on the march.
Down to Protestville
When the demonstrators reached Piccadilly Circus, some young men climbed up the scaffolding of a nearby building. They waved a Palestinian flag from the rooftops above the square. The crowd cheered and applauded.
What was so surreal was the scaffolding was covered in a gigantic Dolce & Gabbana advert. The sight of the Palestinian flag being waved above the image of a frivolous male model was a hilarious juxtaposition.
One of the marchers produced an Afghan flag and raised it alongside the Palestinian one. Not everyone is impressed.
Several Jewish contingents were at the march, from the secular left Jewish Voice for Labour to the Haredi Neturei Karta. The sight of Ultra-Orthodox Jews holding up anti-Zionist signs calling for the end of Israel naturally turned many heads.
No demonstration is free of opportunists, of course.
Scientologists, not well known for having any Israel politics, somehow rationalised a space for themselves on the march and tried to hand out flyers to the crowd. The usual suspects from different Trotskyist groups were otherwise represented, distributing mass-produced placards and flags. Other demonstrators danced to Arab music.
After the massacre of civilians in southern Israel last week, I wasn’t surprised by the broad turnout. The killings were filmed by Hamas and broadcast for the entire world to see. Londoners were shocked by the violence and brutality, and almost everyone found a reason to be there.
Eventually, we reached Trafalgar Square, where protesters had climbed up the statue of King Charles II to put a Palestinian flag in his hand.
This was the same spot where the king had butchered his father’s executioners.
The route from Trafalgar Square to Parliament is just Protestville. No one but the super-rich live here, and most people passing through are tourists. Except on a day when there’s a demo.
It was an appropriate course. We had just walked through the streets of London to the old core of British imperialism to protest its legacy in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas are both representatives of this heritage.
Go condemn yourself
Though the BBC once led the world press in its coverage of the Middle East, that role has since been abdicated in favour of Arab broadcasters such as Al Jazeera English. Much of the British media has adopted US-style rhetoric on Israel, including the state broadcaster. All critics of Israel can expect demands to condemn Hamas and support Israel’s right to defend itself.
Witness absurd spectacles such as Sky News journalist Kay Burley misrepresenting Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot. Burley claimed he said Israel was “asking for it” when he said no such thing.
Meanwhile, the BBC ran an insulting interview with Zomlot. Just after discussing the deaths of his relatives in Gaza, Kirsty Wark asked Zomlot: “Do you condemn Hamas?”
At the same time, the BBC has come under harsh criticism for not calling Hamas members terrorists. Veteran journalist John Simpson felt the need to defend the policy in a televised statement explaining that ‘terrorism’ is a loaded term.
This controversy will continue for as long as Hamas is still active.
The BBC is facing growing right-wing pressure over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though it regularly platforms Israel’s supporters. But because the BBC is not resorting to gutter-level, GB News-style journalism, the corporation is under attack. By looking at the rest of the media, we might realise why this is the case. GB News had Israeli spoon-bender Uri Geller on to talk about the war.
Of course, politicians have been falling over each other to make excuses for Israeli aggression. The Conservative government is backing the Israeli government to the hilt, deploying a warship and demanding Egypt open the Rafah border crossing to take in Gazans. The Foreign Office knows very well that Netanyahu would prefer they stay there once they’re in Egypt — something that even the White House refuses to sanction.
Naturally, Labour leader Keir Starmer has said Israel has “the right” to cut off water, electricity, food and medical supplies to the Gaza Strip.
No doubt Starmer doesn’t see any political capital in calling for restraint in this war.
Islington South MP Emily Thornberry has claimed Israel has an “absolute right to defend itself.” This was her response to being asked if cutting off electricity, water and food to Gaza breaks international law. Meanwhile, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been vilified for “failing to condemn Hamas.” Even though Corbyn has made it clear he opposes the terror attacks committed against Israelis, that’s not enough.
Corbyn was one of the speakers at the London demonstration. He spoke of international solidarity with Palestinians. “None of us are here to condone killing. None of us are here to condone occupation,” he told the crowd. Those words will not be taken seriously by the talking heads and Sunday columnists.
Instead, the presumption of guilt is on the Palestinians, and the presumption of Antisemitism is on anyone who suggests something is wrong with Israeli government policy.