Massive UK demonstrations in support of Palestine

ACCORDING to organisers around 500,000 took to the streets of London on Saturday 28 October to demand a ceasefire as the Israeli onslaught in Gaza continues to escalate.

In a post on Facebook aimed at the British press, Stop the War Coalition officer John Rees argued that the figures reported by the media – most gave the police estimate of 100,000, some even lower – were incorrect.

He compared it to the mass demonstration against the Iraq war in February 2003 which saw at least 1 million march in the capital, in which Rees was one of the organisers.

I can tell you with certainty that yesterday’s Palestine demo, which I also helped organise, was half a million strong, not a figure one fifth of that,” he wrote.

It was certainly one of the biggest demonstrations in London for some time. The present writer has been on and helped organise a number of them over the years and you get an instinctive feel for the numbers.

But arguments over the figures aside, this feels like another moment that is set to be squandered by the timidity of those placed at the head of the movement, most of whom one way or another are in hock to the Labour Party.

Not for the first time the demands of the protesters were in advance of the demands that came from the platform. While some of those on the streets called for victory to the resistance, speaker after speaker told us how bad things are and the necessity of a ceasefire.

But those on the demonstration are acutely aware of this. Many have lost friends and family in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, others wait anxiously for news as Tel Aviv’s killing spree continues with the internet blocked and electricity cut off.

What was noticeably missing from the top table were any calls to action. Unison’s president did proudly declare support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – but she said nothing about how it could harness the power of its 1.3 million members to force the British government to change its position and stop the Israeli war machine in its tracks.

Similarly Mick Lynch of the RMT gave a rousing speech, but after the platitudes he made no concrete proposals of how the ceasefire he and others were demanding could be achieved.

At the very least, as a transport union, strike action or a refusal to ship armaments bound for Israel would be a good starting point and set an example for others to follow.

Labour MP Richard Burgon took to the stage and announced he had laid down an Early Day Motion in parliament demanding a ceasefire which had cross party support from more than 90 lawmakers.

Sounds impressive, but in reality an EDM is the parliamentary equivalent of asking people to sign a petition. And let’s not forget Burgon was one of the cowardly so-called ‘left MPs’ who backed down without even a whimper when Starmer threatened to remove the whip from those who had signed an open letter from Stop the War criticising Nato soon after Russia launched its intervention in Ukraine.

Similarly Diane Abbott spoke of the need for a ceasefire, yet she will still remain a Labour MP and will undoubtedly call on the British public to vote for the party at the next election.

Given that Labour 2023 is even more bloodthirsty than Labour 2003, this means calling for more imperialist war and more attacks on working class people.

Organisers of the demonstration urged people to go home, join the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and StWC and to come back again next week and every week until a ceasefire is called. But by then many thousands more Palestinians will have been killed, Gaza will be in ruins and the British government will simply carry on its ‘business as usual’ approach.

It is clear that a walk in London on a weekend and moral handwringing is simply not enough. It poses no serious threat to those in power and will have a minimal impact on whether the government, or indeed the Labour Party, backs a ceasefire.

It’s like none of the lessons of the mass march against the Iraq war have been learned. Repeating the same formula, with the same platform speakers seen at every single demonstration is symbolic of the paucity of the left and progressive movement in Britain.

Since the demonstration, organisers have patted each other on the back and engaged in the same empty rhetoric we hear after every sizable protest. However we simply cannot march people to the top of the hill and leave them there. We, and more importantly the people of Gaza, cannot afford to squander the situation again.

Our demands must be radical. It is now essential that every trade union, especially those in the defence and transport industries, takes immediate steps toward coordinated strike action.

The movement must be prepared for mass action at the defence companies that are responsible for arms sales to Israel, including blockades of their sites to prevent weapons and parts from leaving, following the lead of Palestine Action who have occupied Elbit factories in Leicestershire and Bristol since Israel’s bombing campaign began.

At the very least Britain’s trade union leaders must follow the example of the Belgian workers and refuse to handle any shipments with arms bound for Israel.

We can take inspiration from history. From the stevedores and dockers who refused to load the Jolly George with munitions bound for Poland to wage war against revolutionary Russia to the heroic workers at Rolls Royce who said “Nae Pasaran” to stop engine parts being used against Allende’s Chile.

In 2006, activists shut down the Derry offices of Raytheon, the fifth biggest arms manufacturer in the world and destroyed its computer systems to prevent the Israeli army from carrying out war crimes in Lebanon.

The action was taken in the wake of the second Israeli massacre at Qana in which 28 civilians, 16 of whom were children, were killed in an airstrike on a three-storey apartment block. The Raytheon Nine, as they were known won their court case, acquitted of charges of criminal damage in a unanimous decision.

At time of writing thousands are staging a sit-in at London Liverpool Street station demanding an immediate ceasefire and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine in an encouraging sign, organised outside of the structures of the official movement.

It was possibly a response to the lack of strategy from those who have placed themselves at the head of the protests, who have done their very best to demobilise the swathes of people who have taken to the streets, including stalling the momentum by failing to call for a national demonstration on Saturday, a move which seems like a major climbdown after Home Secretary Suella Braverman described them as “hate marches.”

Hours before the Liverpool Street station protest, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer restated his opposition to a ceasefire after he was questioned after a Chatham House speech. He was met by angry protestors outside the meeting venue, however he was backed by a number of his MPs, including Wes Streeting.

We are now in the grotesque situation where Labour has suspended one of its senior parliamentarians Andy McDonald for calling for peace, while the leadership of the party cheers on the slaughter of Palestinians, including more than 3,000 children.

Moving beyond calls for a ceasefire, we must call for a victory to the Palestinian resistance, and ensure it has the moral and material ability to do so, as is its right even under bourgeois international law.

In Britain we must resist efforts to criminalise solidarity with the Palestinian people, with the government seeking to impose bans on waving a flag or branding support for BDS ‘antisemitic’ or even support for terrorism.

There are only two sides, the oppressor and the oppressed. Resistance is not only essential, it is our duty.

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