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As The War Of Words In Parliament Drags On, Civic Action On Gaza Has Become Vital

Free Palestine Coalition protest, central London, 4 November 2023. Steve Eason/Flickr

Staff writer Alex Martin Astley discusses the different manners by which students can pursue action for a ceasefire in the Israeli-Gaza war and argues for one such course of action.

‘Devolved Parliament’ is a large oil-on-canvas by Banksy featuring the House of Commons populated entirely by chimpanzees, rather than human parliamentarians. It is unclear whether the painting is metaphorical or visionary; whether it intends to show the ineptitude of our politicians by portraying them as apes, or suggests that one day, apes, by merit of their relative aptitude, will replace our politicians.

Either way, the scenes in Parliament two weeks ago drew a troubling resemblance to that painting following the debacle over the Gaza ceasefire vote. After almost five months since the October 7 attack and the war on Gaza began, rather than decisive action from our leaders, we have witnessed a genuine display of simian politics in the House of Commons descended into chaos, as parties vied for their preferred wording of the ceasefire. Actions, meanwhile, remain the preserve of the electorate, many of whom continue to protest regularly across the country to demand a ceasefire.

Two weeks ago, however, James Cleverly called on pro-Palestine protesters to stop their demonstrations as they had “made their point.” The fact that a Home Secretary believes he has the prerogative to dictate when protests should take place is remarkable, especially when his government has done very little to remedy the issue that sparked the protests in the first place: bringing a stop to the war.

Those who have marched in their hundreds of thousands in recent months have not done so to make a point, but to enact political change: to demand that the UK – a country more implicated than most in this conflict – ceases its arms exports and calls for an immediate ceasefire to the war on Gaza, where over 30,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry. Until that happens, the protests will continue.

But the combined effort from the political and media establishments to vilify peaceful protesters and degrade their rights to protest is a longer, more disturbing trend. Suella Braverman, Cleverly’s predecessor, referred to the demonstrations as “hate marches”, and after announcing that he wanted tougher policing of protests, Rishi Sunak gave the sombre warning that “mob rule is replacing democratic rule”.

This not true. Outlier incidents, such as demonstrators wearing Hamas insignia or protests outside MPs’ houses are serious and should be treated as such. But these should not be conflated with legitimate public scrutiny.

The concerns over increasing cases of antisemitism, as expressed by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, should worry us all, and should have served as a wake up call for our politicians to cease the rhetoric and politics of division. Jewish people, as history has repeatedly shown, have suffered when communities are torn apart; the government should be making every effort to unite our own.

The Palestine marches themselves have also raised vocal concerns from many Jews in the UK, who condemn the use of slogans like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” For the majority of the people at the protests, however, this means freedom, justice and dignity for the Palestinian people in both Israel and Occupied Palestine, and not the eradication of Israel. To label central London as a “no-go zone for Jews” on account of this not only polarises our society further, but ignores the Jewish groups who continue to march in solidarity with Palestine.

I have seen first-hand that the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful and overwhelmingly united in their demand for peace. Figures published by the police attest to this. On 17 February, for example, at a march of over 200,000 people there were 12 arrests. Thus, we find ourselves in the bizarre reality where the people calling for an end to the deaths of enormous numbers of Palestinians in Gaza are a ‘hateful mob’, while using the means of peaceful protest to do so is labelled ‘undemocratic’.

Many of the democratic rights we enjoy today – we may even take them for granted, were fought for, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, through the act of protest. It forms a basic pillar of our democracy and is protected by the European Convention of Human Rights under the right to freedom of assembly. But recent Conservative laws – mainly the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act passed in 2022, have added restrictions to protests and longer sentences for those that don’t comply; and now a further clampdown is in the offing.

In a visit to the UK in January, UN envoy Michel Forst said that the erosion of the right to protest, and the treatment of activists, was “extremely worrying.” Under new legislation, causing a “public nuisance” has led to new prosecutions and convictions of protesters, an offence that carries a maximum penalty 10 years.

Despite the new restrictions, the organised pro-Palestine marches are legal and have been coordinated alongside local police forces. So, if you, like 71% of other Britons, are in favour of a ceasefire, then joining the next demonstration is a legitimate and meaningful way to pressure the government to call officially for an end to the war on Gaza. With most of the political class alternating hopelessly between prevarication and politicking, the onus is on the public to act. But if you can’t make the next protest and still want to help, here are four other acts of support that can make a difference…

Donate or fundraise

There is a host of charities and organisations working to stem the rapidly declining humanitarian situation in Gaza and help civilians that have been affected by the war. With 75% of the population internally displaced, 1.5 million Gazans are now crammed into 60 square kilometres in Rafah, where local aid workers have described conditions as “a living nightmare with no escape”. There is a critical lack of food, water, sanitation, and healthcare; and now there’s also the threat of an Israeli ground invasion.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is the primary humanitarian organisation in Gaza, after 75 years providing aid, emergency response, education, and health services. UNRWA’s operations are now at “breaking point”, after several countries, including the UK, suspended funding following Israel’s allegations that 12 of its 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in the attacks on 7 October. Though an investigation is ongoing, and 10 of the accused staff members were immediately sacked (the other two were already dead), UNRWA lost the bulk of its funding, mostly from the US.

In response, the UN chief Antonio Guterres made an urgent plea for countries to resume their financial support at a time when the humanitarian situation is at its most dire. Indeed, the EU recently decided to continue funding UNRWA, and in February, Ireland committed an additional €20 million to help alleviate the funding crisis. But given the fact that Israel’s preeminent allies are the ones to suspend funding, the decision appears to be politically motivated. Putting it more bluntly, Ilan Pappé, the Israeli historian and my former professor at the University of Exeter, said this was a case of “the Global North following blindly here the Israeli cue on UNRWA”.

The Red Cross and Save the Children are two other well-established organisations that can deliver aid and support effectively to those affected by the conflict. There are many others too, but check first whether the charity is officially registered to ensure your money is going where it’s needed.

Join the university’s campaign group

KCL Students For Justice For Palestine (KCL SJP) conducts a range of activities from campaigning and fundraising to hosting seminars with notable speakers. The society is dedicated to ending the university’s complicity in the Israeli occupation and provides a forum where students can learn about the situation in Palestine. KCL SJP is open for anyone to join, and you can learn more about their upcoming events and how to get involved here.

Write a letter to your MP

In the UK, one of the benefits of our archaic system of government is our proximity, as citizens, to our lawmakers. Parliament works on a constituency basis which means that our local Member of Parliament represents us whether we voted for them or not; they are supposed to address the concerns of their constituents by raising them in parliament or by tabling a question to the relevant Government Minister. Your MP may not personally agree with your letter, but the more letters they receive the more influenced they will be to address collective concerns. If you don’t have time to write a letter from scratch, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has put together a template you can use, urging your MP to support a ceasefire and for the UK to stop supplying Israel with weapons.

Boycotts

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement demands that Israel follow international law, stop discrimination against Arab Israelis and respect the Palestinian right to return. It was inspired by the global anti-apartheid movement, which employed a similar strategy to bring an end to racial segregation and white minority rule in South Africa.

The movement has grown worldwide since its inception in 2005, though understandable concerns tempered early support. There is a painful history of Jewish businesses being targeted by antisemites. But this fact should not mis-portray any challenges to Israel as a state as an attack on Jews as a people. The narrative that stems from this false equation has shielded Israel from campaigns like BDS. And it’s a powerful narrative: it draws from the all-too-real memory and trauma of Jewish suffering that culminated in the Holocaust.

From consumer boycotts of companies linked to settlement expansion, to governments halting weapons exports, BDS is a grassroots movement designed to effect political change from above by applying pressure from below. In this country, the burden of responsibility is particularly heavy. The UK is one of Israel’s major arms suppliers and has recently rejected blocking export licences, despite concerns from Foreign Office officials over human rights breaches in Gaza. In this way, the UK is complicit, and we in the UK can do something about it. As Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of BDS puts it, “the most profound ethical obligation in this time of carnage is to act to end complicity”.

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