Slander and Threats Won’t Stop the Protests Against Israel’s War on Gaza

As the Israeli military uses ever more violence against Gaza’s civilian population, there have been massive demonstrations calling for a cease-fire. The protesters are taking a stand for basic human solidarity against the moral bankruptcy of Western leaders.

Demonstration demanding a cease-fire in Gaza in London, October 28, 2023. (Guy Smallman / Getty Images)

On the last day of October, Israel bombed the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp north of Gaza City, demolishing several apartment blocks and leaving behind huge craters amidst the rubble. Medical personnel at Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital said that the bombing killed at least fifty people — a death toll that is certain to rise as more bodies are recovered — and wounded hundreds more.

Britain’s Channel 4 News broadcast the horrifying scenes inside the hospital as doctors struggled to cope with the carnage. One eyewitness described the aftermath of the bombing to CNN:

Children were carrying other injured children and running, with grey dust filling the air. Bodies were hanging on the rubble, many of them unrecognized. Some were bleeding and others were burnt.

Jabalia, which covers an area of 1.4 square kilometers, is the biggest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), more than 116,000 people are officially registered as living there.

In contrast with the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital two weeks ago, there was no attempt by the Israeli military to deny responsibility for the attack. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), claimed that the bombs that devastated Jabalia had also killed a Hamas military commander. He did not offer any proof to back up this claim, which Hamas quickly denied.

Hecht told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Jabalia was a legitimate target because the Palestinian civilians living there should have moved to southern Gaza, where Israel has also been dropping bombs. UNRWA has repeatedly stated that there are no safe areas in the Gaza Strip where people can go.

The IDF spokesman made no attempt to argue that the horrifying bloodshed at Jabalia was the result of an unfortunate error on the part of the Israeli military. It was clear from what Hecht said that Israel anticipated a large number of civilian casualties when it launched the attack on Jabalia and went ahead with it anyway.

The Israeli government now evidently considers the whole of northern Gaza to be a free-fire zone, regardless of what that means for the safety of Palestinian civilians. To drive the point home, its forces bombed Jabalia again the following day. Anyone who still insists that the IDF is not waging war on the people of Gaza is willfully blind to the facts.

One World, One Struggle

Atrocities like this — and the certainty of many more if Israel’s war continues — have prompted huge numbers of people to take to the streets across Europe and North America to demand an immediate cease-fire, in tandem with the mobilizations for Palestine throughout the Middle East. The biggest demonstrations so far have been in London, with marches on three successive Saturdays that grew bigger every time. Last Saturday’s protest attracted several hundred thousand people — perhaps as many as half a million.

The British home secretary Suella Braverman has responded to the protests with mounting fury, branding them as “hate marches” that pose a threat to Britain’s Jewish community and threatening a legal clampdown (without being able to say what laws the protesters might have broken). The only reason to dwell upon Braverman’s bigoted ravings is to place them in the context of a noxious political agenda that she wants to promote.

Braverman has an ugly track record of propagating far-right, antisemitic conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism” and the Great Replacement. She is angling to become the next Conservative leader after Rishi Sunak guides her party to its anticipated defeat in next year’s general election. Braverman’s strategy for achieving this goal is to outbid her rivals in xenophobic demagoguery directed against immigrants and refugees.

For Braverman and those who think like her, the term “antisemitism” has nothing to do with bigotry against Jews. When she accuses someone of antisemitism, she simply means that they do not give unconditional support to Israel. If the person in question happens to be Jewish, that makes no difference to her outlook. On the other hand, if somebody does give unconditional support to Israel, she believes that nobody can ever accuse them of hostility to Jews, however much time they spend promoting conspiracist farragoes that are inextricably linked to antisemitic prejudice — a convenient state of affairs for Braverman herself, needless to say.

Braverman and her allies in the media, such as Viktor Orbán’s British outrider Douglas Murray, think of the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians as a proxy war. For them, Israel represents the front line of Western civilization while the Palestinians represent the postcolonial South — in particular its Arab and Muslim component — that must be kept down and out. They see the protesters expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza as a treacherous fifth column undermining the West from within, even — or especially — if they come from a white, Christian background. There are clear echoes here of the way defenders of apartheid in South Africa perceived white supporters of the African National Congress.

Although this geopolitical form of racism overlaps with prejudice based on skin color, it is not identical to it. Braverman has Indian heritage, and her parents came to Britain from Mauritius and Kenya, but supporters of the British right will gladly embrace her as a champion of their cause. In contrast, they will express venomous hostility toward a politician like Humza Yousaf, the Scottish first minister, whose family roots are in Pakistan. Yousaf has condemned Israeli violence against civilians in Gaza and called for a cease-fire, which places him beyond the pale in their eyes.

It should be obvious that “Western civilization” in this mindset has nothing to do with liberal democracy, human rights, or any of the other fine notions that people sometimes like to associate with the West. It is about raw economic and military power. Figures like Braverman and Murray want to maintain the savage inequalities of the world system at all costs. The vigorous support for Palestine on the streets of London infuriates them because it suggests they may not be able to dragoon the citizens of their own country into this struggle.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Clarifications

The Labour leader Keir Starmer has also been doing his best to maintain a cross-party consensus in support of Israel’s war on Gaza. In the first week of the war, Starmer explicitly endorsed cutting off supplies of water and electricity to Gaza’s civilian population — a war crime, plain and simple — but later attempted to roll back on that position, claiming that he had misunderstood the question.

This was clearly a lie. It took a full week for Starmer to issue his “clarification,” by which time a member of his shadow cabinet, Emily Thornberry, had also refused to say that collective punishment of Gazans would be a violation of international law. Starmer’s team only cobbled together the new line after facing an angry backlash from Labour councillors.

The Labour leadership is still holding out against the call for a cease-fire. Three senior Labour figures — the London mayor Sadiq Khan, his Manchester counterpart, Andy Burnham, and the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar — have broken ranks with Starmer under pressure from the massive demonstrations to advocate a change of line. Many Labour councillors have resigned from the party because of Starmer’s support for Israel, while more than three hundred have signed an open letter demanding that he oppose further violence against Gaza.

Against this backdrop of dissent, Starmer delivered a speech at the Chatham House think tank on October 31 to oppose a cease-fire. After issuing a token plea for Israel to “act in accordance with the law” as it wages war on Gaza, Starmer pointedly refused to say if there had been any transgressions in the last three weeks: “I think it’s unwise for politicians to stand on stages like this or to sit in television studios and pronounce day by day which acts may or may not be lawful under international law.”

Within hours of Starmer’s speech, Israel had bombed the Jabalia camp. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, went on radio the following morning and suggested that the bombing could be “legally justifiable” if the Israeli military managed to supply the correct rationale: “It’s for Israel to explain its actions.” Lammy made his comments shortly before the second bombing of the camp.

Palestinians Don’t Count

Starmer and his allies have also tried to clamp down on meaningful solidarity with the Palestinians inside their party. Earlier this week, they suspended the Labour MP Andy McDonald for delivering a speech at last Saturday’s march in London that included the following words:

We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.

A Labour spokesman justified the suspension with a bizarre non sequitur:

The comments made by Andy McDonald at the weekend were deeply offensive, particularly at a time of rising antisemitism which has left Jewish people fearful for their safety.

How could a plea for Israelis and Palestinians to “live in peaceful liberty” possibly be “deeply offensive” or contribute to Jews feeling “fearful for their safety”? To make sense of this assault on the English language, we have to recognize that the Labour leadership operates with the same basic understanding of “antisemitism” as Braverman. The conflation of hostility to Jewish people with support for Palestinian rights has been one of their main factional weapons over the past few years, and they are not going to discard it now.

The background to what McDonald said at the march is especially revealing. Braverman has been leading a push to define the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a form of hate speech. This relies on the assertion that those who use the chant are implicitly calling for all Israeli Jews between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea to be killed or deported. This clearly does not follow as a matter of logic or as a matter of fact.

Palestinians and their supporters have refused to allow bitterly hostile opponents like Braverman to misrepresent their slogan on the basis of prejudicial assumptions about a malevolent hidden agenda. They insist that it is a call for justice and equality between Israelis and Palestinians in the full territory of historic Palestine.

If they dropped this particular slogan, there is every reason to think that Israel’s supporters would find reasons for objecting to any other chant that was used on the solidarity marches. After all, once you have granted yourself the right to add words that are not there in order to establish the “true” meaning of a slogan, there is no limit to the mental acrobatics you can perform. One can easily imagine Braverman suggesting that the call to “free Palestine” really means “free Palestine from Jews” and should therefore be prohibited.

Speaking on his own behalf, McDonald spelled out the detail of what he was advocating — equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians — in a way that left no room for misunderstanding. The Guardian’s Daniel Boffey still made a tortuous attempt to rationalize his suspension on behalf of the Labour leadership: “With the language being so loaded, so contentious, and uttered at a time of a huge rise in antisemitic attacks, it was felt by Labour that McDonald had erred into the offensive.” Journalists who want to stay on good terms with Starmer and his team have to tie themselves in knots to avoid stating the obvious: there was nothing remotely offensive about what McDonald had said, unless you believe that Palestinians don’t have the same right as Israelis to live in peaceful liberty.

There are many familiar phrases used by supporters of Israel that Palestinians consider “loaded” and “contentious,” such as “Israel’s right to defend itself” or “Israel’s right to exist.” When Benjamin Netanyahu and his co-thinkers use those stock formulations, they are invariably arguing for the violent subjugation of the Palestinian people, “from the river to the sea.” Yet the idea that Palestinians could insist on banishing such language from the public sphere — or even have it criminalized — is plainly absurd. The debased, pseudo-legal form of standpoint theory that has taken hold of British public discourse about Israel only applies to its defenders, never to its critics.

The true purpose of McDonald’s suspension was to drive home a clear message: Palestinians don’t count. If anyone doubts the influence of crude anti-Palestinian racism in the top circles of the Labour Party, just consider the following detail from an excellent article by David Hearst of Middle East Eye:

A senior adviser to Starmer was asked how many Gazans have to die before Labour will call for a ceasefire. The reply came: “As many as it takes . . .”

Some Way, Some Day

Michael McDowell is a member of Ireland’s upper house, the Seanad, and a former justice minister. He is one of the most strident right-wing ideologues in Irish politics and has spent his entire adult life railing against all varieties of socialism from pale pink to deep red. McDowell’s background is worth stressing, because he used his column for the Irish Times this week to deliver some home truths to Britain’s political class about the war on Gaza and the demonstrations against it:

Innocent Palestinian men, women and children have not morally or legally forfeited their lives, limbs, loved ones and homes because of what Hamas did on October 7th. Those who leave their homes and take to British streets to protest what some western politicians justify in Gaza are not advocating terrorism; on the contrary, they demand that mass killing, maiming, terrorising, and brutalising should stop. Advice that they stay at home is grotesque.

McDowell went on to raise some obvious questions about where Israel’s war is headed:

How can a military operation in Gaza succeed? Now that northern Gaza is cut off, will it be pulverised in the search for Hamas in their bunkers and tunnels? Will Hamas still exist in the south of the Gaza Strip? Will southern Gaza also have to be razed? Will all those who survive be rounded up to search for Hamas members among them? Will torture techniques be used to identify and locate the entire Hamas movement? Or will finding and killing the Hamas leadership suffice? Will there be internment of Hamas detainees or mass graves?

How long will all this take? What will happen to the survivors among the 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza? Who will be in charge? Who will be allowed to rebuild? When will the Israelis leave? What will they leave behind? How many of the hostages will survive the razing of Gaza and the hatred of their captors? What will happen on the West Bank?

He concluded by urging his readers to “write your answers, please, on the back of the blank cheques that Biden, Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen so foolishly posted to Netanyahu. If you can’t answer, maybe our children will figure it out some way, some day.”

You can be a socialist like Andy McDonald or a conservative like Michael McDowell. As soon as you take off the goggles of Anglo-American conventional wisdom, you are immediately confronted with the stark reality of what Israel has been doing in Gaza and its likely consequences for the world. That explains why people in Britain and many other countries have been protesting, and why they will continue to protest no matter what the members of a thoroughly discredited political caste have to say.