An estimated 150,000 people took to the streets this weekend to call for an end to Israel’s violent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as well as to urge the UK government to stop arming the colonialist state
It’s around 2PM at Saturday’s (May 15) Free Palestine protest in London, and the crowd has suddenly broken into a thunderous cheer. A man has scaled the scaffolding of a building overlooking the sea of red, black, white, and green below, and has managed to make it to the roof. To a raucous response from the demonstrators on the ground, he raises a Palestinian flag to the top of the building’s flagpole, and tosses a now-redundant Union Jack off the edge of the roof. Below, as the colours of Palestine now fly proudly above them, an estimated 150,000 people chant in chorus: “1, 2, 3, 4, occupation no more. 5, 6, 7, 8, Israel is a terrorist state.”
Across the world at this exact moment – from Paris to Tokyo to Sydney – tens of thousands of people are doing the same. On the date known as “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, on which Palestinians annually mark their displacement amid the creation of Israel in 1948, global allies join them in protesting Israel’s violent 70-year colonisation of Palestine.
Over the last month, Israel has inflicted its worst violence in years on Palestine, killing at least 192 Palestinians, including 58 children, and injuring hundreds more. On Saturday, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building that housed the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera, in what has been described as a clear attempt “to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza”. In the last two days – as Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the state’s violence would “continue at full force” – the army conducted its deadliest single attack and launched the heaviest airstrikes yet on Gaza City.
Although there has never been peace in Palestine, the current violence broke out at the end of April. Among other mounting tensions, it was largely fuelled by the attempted forced dispossesion of dozens of Palestinian famillies in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as the police storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The unrest has sparked worldwide condemnation of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and the persistent ethnic cleansing of its citizens, and raised urgent conversations about how we should talk about the crisis. In London on Saturday, protesters carried placards bearing quotes by Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd, whose recent CNN interview targeted the “biased, inaccurate framing” of the crisis. Among them was El-Kurd’s defiant response to a question about his support for the “violent protests that have erupted in solidarity” with Palestinians. He said: “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?”
Others brought signs that condemned the killing of children and called for an end to the violence in Gaza, while some set off red, black, white, and green flares. Around 60 protesters carried an enormous Palestinian flag, which faced up to the sky as they walked. Those who unwittingly found themselves at the centre of the demonstration also joined in: a woman in a nail bar held a sign to the window that read “free Palestine”; a man trapped on a stationary bus loaded a picture of the Palestine flag onto his phone; children at overlooking flat windows joined chants of “free free Palestine”.
The London protest was organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Palestinian Forum in Britain, Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Muslim Association of Britain, and saw 13 people arrested, despite it being largely peaceful. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, were among those who gave impassioned speeches. “This time is different,” Zomlot told the crowd. “This time we will not be denied any more. We are united. We have had enough of oppression.”
Marches also took place elsewhere in the UK, with those in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and more taking to the streets to demand freedom for Palestine. Two demonstrations were organised in Belfast, in a poignant display of Irish-Palestinian solidarity, which goes back years due to British occupation and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A sister march in London began at the Colombian Embassy and ended at the Israeli Embassy to show solidarity between the two struggles. Over the last month, people in Colombia have risen up against proposed tax reforms which would disproportionately impact the country’s poorest people, as well as police brutality and rising inequality.
Photographer Nahwand Jaff captured all the action in London over the weekend, marching from Marble Arch to the Israeli Embassy in Kensington. “My father was born in a refugee camp in the south of Lebanon,” Jaff tells Dazed. “Ein Al-Hilweh, Saida, was created for the influx of Palestinian refugees as a result of the Israeli occupation. My grandfather’s village, Al-Na’ima, was among the first to go in 1948. Ein Al-Hilweh still stands, but rather than tents, it now has buildings, schools, and markets with a population of 120,000; 70,000 of whom are Palestinians, without any form of citizenship, still waiting to go home.”
“This occupation by settler colonialists has gone on far too long, and the international enabling is continuously devastating” – Nahwand Jaff
The 32-year-old continues: “Generations have been born in what is meant to be a temporary accommodation. This occupation by settler colonialists has gone on far too long, and the international enabling is continuously devastating.”
Speaking from the protest, 29-year-old H said: “Palestinian people have resisted ceaselessly for decades. What is happening to them right now is at the centre of the fight for land rights, anti-racism, and against settler-colonialism. These are things we say we care about and this is an opportunity to show that. States do not have a right to exist, people do. All of our freedoms are bound up in the freedom and dignity of Palestinian people.”
62-year-old T added: “I’m so angry at what the Israeli government is doing and has been doing to the Palestinian people. This has been going on for as long as I can remember. The international community needs to put pressure on Israel to stop this madness.”
One protester, 27-year-old S, has a more personal connection to Palestine. “I learned about Palestine a couple of years ago through my friends who planned to travel there to volunteer with an organisation called Skate Pal, who work and engage with youth in Ramallah through skateboarding,” they explained. “I’m a skater myself so I tried to go with them, but for no reason Israel decided not to let me in. After that I started learning more about the situation. I still hope to go there.”
24-year-old Hannah also feels a particular connection to the sitution in Palestine. “I’m half Ethiopian, and in Ethiopia, the ethnic cleansing of the Tigrayan people is happening right now. That struggle should not have to be endured anywhere; it’s very simple in that respect.”
For others, including 29-year-old J, joining the protest was simply about showing solidarity with Palestinians and speaking up for a community “whose voice has been silenced for generations”.
27-year-old Ben said the strong turnout and unity of the crowd made the atmosphere feel joyous. “It feels odd to describe something like this as joyous,” they explained, “but it really was. It was so positive to see so many come together like they did.” For Ben, the current protests feel like a sea change in the public’s perception of the crisis. “Increased accessibility to information, and especially the inescapability of videos and photos from Palestine online, means that the narrative is slowly being taken out of the hands of outlets with a vested interest in a pro-Israel stance, and that can only be a good thing.”
See Nahwand Jaff’s photos from the protest in the gallery above, and read Dazed’s feature about how to talk about Palestine (and how to help) here.