A freezing London afternoon, one of those when you think you should not get out of bed. But outside London is moving, people from all over the country are gathering at Speakers’ Corner. It’s the last day of protest after a long week of marches during which Londoners have demonstrated throughout the city, from Marble Arch to the Israeli embassy. Saturday the 10th of January is the final day, 20,000 people (according to police estimates) gathered once more at Speakers’ Corner. A horizon of banners and flags covers the central forecourt of the world famous park. It’s impossible to count the number of slogans, the eye soon becomes dizzy: “Free Palestine”, “Stop the holocaust in Gaza”, and “Israel out of Gaza” are only a few examples of the hundreds of variations underpinning the concept behind it. The demonstrators are a beautifully heterogeneous group of people. Mothers with their children, young people, university students and senior citizens, all united in what seems to be a common call for peace driven by human empathy towards the unacceptable condition of the Palestinians.
The march proceeds peacefully through a frozen London, constantly accompanied by chants in support of a free Palestinian state, in support of a lasting peace and in support of an international boycott. From Hyde Park, through Bayswater Road, to Notting Hill Gate where the Israeli embassy lies, at the corner with Palace Green. The snow falling on the heads of the demonstrators did not fade the enthusiasm and the desire to make a statement against the current status quo in the Gaza strip.
As I march, I talk with Jamal, who prefers to keep his last name a secret. I ask him what gives him the impetus to come and protest; he answers with an irreverent grin, re-stating my question with an exclamation mark on the end of it. He seems to mean the answer is obvious and self- explanatory. But I want to know more than that, I ask him is it against Israel? In support of Hamas? In support of peace? If so, for a two state resolution? Against the war per se or just against the Israeli approach? Jamal quickly clarifies; he is here because “the Israeli methods are unacceptable, they are responding to fireworks with tanks and rockets”. I put forward a possible counter argument to his point, should the Israeli state remain passive in front of a military threat even if it is comparatively insignificant? Jamal continues “Israel is a war zone, you don’t put civilians in a war zone, Israel’s response is unacceptable”. But Jamal is a single participant in the multitude that is protesting. It is a heterogeneous group, both in semblance and in ideas.
There is not a single unifying motive of the protest, and sadly often some participants seem drawn in by uninformed populism. The young, many of them of Arab origin, have a more radical view; they think Israel is an ‘illegal’ state occupying a territory unlawfully. Hussam Hussein, originally from Palestine, says he feels as his own the sufferings of the people of Gaza. “I can’t stand watching the news, I can’t stand opening the newspaper, every time I feel an outburst of rage”, he continues “If I were in Palestine I would be a terrorist”. It is surely hard for Westerners to fully comprehend the feelings going through the mind of a young Arab, but behind the impetus of feelings there seems to lie little factual knowledge of the situation itself. When judging something so difficult we have to try and separate feelings, as passionate as they can be, from rationale and the realism of the causes of war. Angry and misguided youths like Hussam, because of the lack of a structural organisation within the protest, became the louder voice which subdued the majority of chants for peace. The lack of organisation favoured the radical view of the youth to take the upper hand. If the organisers of the protest had invited academics, members of parliament or an activist to give talks, the violence would probably not have been perpetrated.
The protest turned violent in front of the Israeli embassy. At our arrival, three young men were standing on top of the Victorian gate with Palestinian flags and banners, showing a photo of Hassan Nasrallah. What does the leader of Hezbollah have to do with the crisis in the Gaza strip? This seems to be the epitomy of confused anti- Israel sentiments.
The next moment, the lamp posts were being smashed, and an American flag was being burnt and the gate to the embassy torn down; the moment after the police squad came. Protesters were ever more in tension and the whole atmosphere swirled in a climax of suppressed violence. The crowd became a mob, the peaceful protesters soon left and shoes, sticks taken from banners, bottles and jars started flying towards the assembled police presence. Slogans against them started to rise, with one police officer being knocked out in the ensuing clash.
The next day, reports of pitched battles between police and protestors and the smashing and looting of shops on Kensington High Street appear in the press. Violence certainly gave a short term answer to many frustrated sentiments, but sadly the overall image of the protest just resembles the sentiments behind the conflict in Israel itself: a climaxing of what seem irrational actions, where sentiments, prevailing over reason, have lead to the impossibility of finding a common ground where discussion is possible. A march to demonstrate the awareness of the world to what is happening in Gaza and the will of people to find a solution seemed, unfortunately, to confirm the ever so distant gap between Palestians and Israelis and their respective supporters.