Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Movement Is Taking a Vital Stand in Defense of Democracy

Britain’s political class overwhelmingly supports Israel’s war on Gaza, even though the British public backs the call for a cease-fire. One of the biggest protest movements in living memory is defying threats of state repression to challenge this complicity.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London calling for a cease-fire in Gaza on November 11, 2023. (Kristian Buus / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Israel’s war on the people of Gaza has revealed a chasm between popular opinion and the political class in the countries that provide Israel with invaluable support. The latest polling in the United States shows that 68 percent of Americans want the Israeli government to call a cease-fire and negotiate, while just 31 percent back arms deliveries to Israel. Yet only a handful of politicians in the US Congress back a cease-fire, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is now threatening to spend $100 million in a drive to unseat them.

In Britain, the divide is equally stark. The call for a cease-fire already had majority support a month ago. Polling in the last week showed that 68 percent of voters want a cease-fire, including 64 percent of Conservative supporters and 80 percent of those who back the Labour Party. Last night, however, the vast majority of British MPs refused to support a motion from the Scottish National Party calling for a cease-fire.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer faced a major rebellion in the House of Commons with more than fifty Labour MPs breaking ranks to support the call for a cease-fire, including eight members of his front bench team. This came after the Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak was obliged to sack his home secretary, Suella Braverman, because of her attempt to incite violence against a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza last Saturday.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s war has already generated a significant crisis for Britain’s two major parties. As the horrifying death toll in Gaza continues to rise, the Westminster elite will come under more pressure to reflect the overwhelming support for a cease-fire.

Street Fighting Woman

Suella Braverman’s forced departure from Sunak’s government set the seal on a remarkable week in British politics as popular mobilization in the streets pushed back a governmental assault on the right to free assembly.

Over the last month, there have been several marches in central London on successive Saturday afternoons calling for a cease-fire that have attracted a bigger crowd every time. Braverman was enraged by these displays of solidarity with the Palestinian people and denounced the protests as “hate marches.”

The home secretary urged London’s Metropolitan Police to ban the march on November 11, even though there was no legal basis for doing so. Senior police officers tried to pressure the organizers into calling off the march voluntarily. When that attempt failed, they made it clear to Braverman that there was nothing more they could do within the limits of the law.

In an extraordinary turn, Braverman began inciting far-right activists to stage a counterprotest. She published an article in the Times that accused the police of treating “politically connected minority groups who are favoured by the left” more leniently than “right-wing and nationalist protesters.” Braverman’s attack on the pro-Palestine demonstrators was a foghorn rather than a dog whistle:

I do not believe that these marches are merely a cry for help for Gaza. They are an assertion of primacy by certain groups — particularly Islamists — of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland. Also disturbingly reminiscent of Ulster are the reports that some of Saturday’s march group organisers have links to terrorist groups, including Hamas.

For most British people, Braverman’s reference to Northern Ireland will have brought to mind the parades held every summer by unionist groups like the Orange Order that have provoked strong opposition when they seek to march through predominantly nationalist areas. The hard-line unionists who organize those parades occupy the same ideological territory as Braverman herself — not least when it comes to Israel. The home secretary’s aides briefed the media afterward that she was really talking about dissident republicans, which seemed like a hasty ex post facto rationalization from someone who had put their foot in their mouth once again.

For those who know the history of Northern Ireland well — a category that excludes the majority of British politicians and pundits — Braverman’s attempt to shut down solidarity with the Palestinians brought to mind the response of right-wing unionists to the civil rights movement of the late 1960s.

Figures like Ian Paisley organized counterdemonstrations to give the authorities an excuse to ban the civil rights marches and even mounted a full-scale attack on the protesters who walked from Belfast to Derry at the beginning of 1969. The Burntollet ambush by Paisley’s supporters was one of the key events pushing Northern Ireland over the brink into a long-running conflict that left thousands of people dead.

Unique Circumstances

Braverman seems to have had more limited plans for provoking civil disorder. There is every reason to think that the home secretary wanted far-right thugs to attack the Palestine solidarity march. If some of the marchers defended themselves against attack, she could blame them for the violence and seek to ban future demonstrations. Unfortunately for Braverman, the people she was relying upon couldn’t be trusted to execute the plan.

A small group of ultranationalist thugs gathered at a war memorial in central London, well away from the demonstration’s planned route. Denied the opportunity to attack the marchers, they attacked the police instead. A statement from the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Matt Twist, described what happened on the day:

This operation took place in unique circumstances, against a backdrop of conflict in the Middle East, on Armistice Day, and following a week of intense debate about protest and policing. These all combined to increase community tensions. The extreme violence from the right-wing protesters towards the police today was extraordinary and deeply concerning. They arrived early, stating they were there to protect monuments, but some were already intoxicated, aggressive and clearly looking for confrontation. Abuse was directed at officers protecting the Cenotaph, including chants of: “You’re not English anymore.”

Braverman’s allies interpreted the line about “intense debate” as an attack on the home secretary, and they were no doubt right to do so.

Meanwhile, eight hundred thousand people marched from Hyde Park to the US embassy in Vauxhall, calling for a cease-fire. They were passionate but disciplined and made a mockery of Braverman’s smear campaign. It was one of the biggest demonstrations in modern British history, in the same ballpark as the protest against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003.

The clearest proof of what Braverman had been planning came in her own statement, which simply pretended that events had unfolded in the way she had been expecting: “Our brave police officers deserve the thanks of every decent citizen for their professionalism in the face of violence and aggression from protesters and counterprotesters in London today.” That was the only mention of the “counterprotesters” from Braverman, who went on to denounce the pro-cease-fire march as a celebration of terrorism:

This can’t go on. Week by week, the streets of London are being polluted by hate, violence, and antisemitism. Members of the public are being mobbed and intimidated. Jewish people in particular feel threatened. Further action is necessary.

The final line of Braverman’s statement was a clear exhortation to the same thugs who had assaulted police officers and left them with broken bones to mobilize their forces again.

Three-Card Tricks

Rishi Sunak also tried to fudge the question of who was to blame for the violence. Sunak started off by condemning the “violent, wholly unacceptable scenes” on the streets of London, which he associated with two actors: supporters of the far-right English Defence League (EDL) and “Hamas sympathisers attending the National March for Palestine.” He went on to refer to “EDL thugs attacking police officers” and “those singing antisemitic chants and brandishing pro-Hamas signs and clothing” as twin evils — a backhanded acknowledgement that nobody associated with the march had attacked police officers, or anyone else for that matter.

When assessing Sunak’s claim that there were people “singing antisemitic chants” or “brandishing pro-Hamas signs and clothing” on the pro-cease-fire demonstration, we have to remember that there has been a sustained effort in Britain to interpret the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a call for genocide. Sunak, Braverman, and their allies have also presented the demand for a cease-fire as an expression of solidarity with Hamas. By making such assertions, they seek to impose their own understanding of reality without having to engage in open debate. There is no reason for anyone else to go along with this rhetorical three-card trick.

There was a major push in the wake of the march to find some evidence of placards that could be presented as expressing hostility to Jews. With almost a million people taking part, it was clearly impossible for the organizers to vet them all, yet the scrutineers could still only point to nine or ten examples of genuinely dubious messages in the entire protest — one for every eighty thousand marchers.

Ben Jamal, the director of Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), put this ginned-up controversy in its proper perspective:

Some of the placards shown and incidents captured are antisemitic. The organisers, including PSC, would dissociate ourselves entirely from them. But we reject absolutely the attempt to suggest that they are indicative of our views or the vast majority of those marching.

Despite their shared hostility to the pro-Palestine demonstrators, Sunak felt obliged to sack Braverman as home secretary in the wake of the violence she had stirred up. Braverman launched a vitriolic attack on her party leader as she went, accusing him of “betrayal” and demanding that he criminalize expressions of solidarity with Gaza: “I have become hoarse urging you to consider legislation to ban the hate marches.”

Lessons Learned

If Braverman’s defenestration proves to be the end of her frontline career, it will be a blessing for British society. However, she is clearly hoping to become the Conservative leader after the next general election, so we may not have seen the last of her noxious demagoguery. In any case, Braverman is a symptom of the problems with Britain’s political culture rather than a primary cause.

How can a figure like Braverman claim to be taking a stand against “racism” and “extremism” in a resignation letter that is otherwise preoccupied with hostility to immigrants and refugees? She could only pull off this maneuver because the greater part of Britain’s political mainstream has spent the last few years trying to conflate hostility toward Jewish people with support for Palestinian rights. The liberal broadsheets and the Labour Party’s current leadership team have been just as active in this campaign as the Tories and their media outriders.

One characteristic legacy of that period is the former Labour MP John Woodcock, who now styles himself as Lord Walney. Woodcock resigned as a Labour MP in the summer of 2018 because he was facing an inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment and claimed that he would not receive a fair hearing. He campaigned for a Conservative victory in the 2019 general election and received a peerage from Boris Johnson’s government soon afterward. Last week, Woodcock gave his support to Braverman’s call for pro-Palestine marches to be banned.

The effort to brand “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a genocidal war cry has clear echoes of previous controversies in British politics about the purported link between antisemitism and attitudes toward Israel. This time, however, the movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people is developing outside the framework of the Labour Party, with the exception of a few rebellious MPs.

The supporters of that movement understand perfectly well that there is no point trying to compromise with opponents who will never accept the legitimacy of your arguments. If Palestine solidarity activists dropped this particular slogan, they would soon face a fresh demand to jump through another carefully constructed hoop, while pro-Israel campaigners never have to mind their language or distance themselves from anything. There comes a point when you have to draw a clear line and reject a tendentious, politicized form of standpoint theory that somehow never makes room for the “lived experience” of Palestinians.

“A Great Solidarity for Us”

With that in mind, it’s worth asking what people in Palestine think about the marches in London and other British cities. Peter Oborne of Middle East Eye put that question to several community leaders in the West Bank last week. Ibrahim Omran, the head of a local council in Burin, gave him the following answer:

I want to thank the people of Britain for marching in support of Palestine. I hope the people protesting against the war will influence the British government. They are a great solidarity for us.

Oborne received a similar response from the mayor of Deir Istiya, Feras Diab:

We believe that this intensive protest will exert pressure to stop the war. Especially because it takes place in a country like Britain which stands clearly with Israel and has never helped the Palestinians.

Whatever happens in British politics over the coming weeks and months, the solidarity movement has already shown Palestinians that they are not facing Israel’s onslaught alone while the rest of the world looks away. Even in countries like Britain where the political class has given obsequious support to Israeli war crimes, there is a not-so-silent majority calling for a cease-fire.

The British demonstrations are a colossal thumb in the eye for every political huckster who has tried to present Israel’s war on the Palestinian people as a clash between Western civilization and Oriental barbarism. No amount of spiteful, poisonous rhetoric from the likes of Braverman can stifle the basic human solidarity that underpins the protest movement.