“No-one will ever silence me, and I will speak my mind,” says 16-year-old Leanne Mohamad, a British-Palestinian activist, to enthusiastic applause at the Palestine Expo.
“At school, when I was studying geography of the Middle East, Palestine was never mentioned. In history it was never mentioned, in religious studies, it was never mentioned. That’s why Palestinians describe themselves often as the forgotten people.”
“I stand before you today as evidence that children will never forget.”
Mohamad’s speech on Saturday summed up the passion, sumud and strength of the rising generations in both the UK and Palestine during Europe’s largest cultural event on Palestine.
The event that Britain’s Israel lobby tried to ban attracted some 16,000 people over two days. Coordinated by the UK non-profit organization Friends of Al-Aqsa, the event was located within Britain’s political hub, Westminster, in the publicly owned Queen Elizabeth II Centre.
Held on five floors, activities included traditional Palestinian dabke, Palestinian cooking demonstrations, spoken word, film, interactive installations, a large market-place, a food hall and other events.
Speeches and panel discussions in the main auditorium explored themes such as Why Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Gaza, the Power of Social Media and Women of Occupation. The evening saw sold-out performances by comedian Aamer Rahman, Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour and a young dance group from Nazareth.
The timing of the event was not coincidental. This year marks a series of devastating anniversaries for Palestinians: a hundred years since the Balfour Declaration, 50 years of Israeli occupation and 10 years of the Israeli government’s blockade on Gaza.
Only three weeks ago, Sajid Javid, Conservative MP and Communities Secretary, threatened to ban the event from taking place because of Friends of Al-Aqsa’s alleged support for Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza. On 14 June, Javid wrote to the organizers telling them that he was “minded” to cancel Palestine Expo. After threats of legal action by Friends of Al-Aqsa’s chair Ismail Patel, Javid’s department had a change of heart on June 27, saying that he was “content” to let it take place.
Only the night before the opening of the event, a group of four Conservative MPs, former Iraq War commander Tim Collins, and the chairman of the Campaign Against Antisemitism condemned the invitation of South African cleric Ebrahim Bham to speak and called on Prime Minister Theresa May to stop government buildings being used by “groups which oppose our values and ideals.”
Despite talk of a large anti-Palestine protest outside the venue, only a handful of demonstrators turned up from around 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., brandishing a large Israeli flag and a megaphone between them, they shouted ‘there’s apartheid in there’ [the venue] and said that those attending were ‘Assad supporters’.
Rather than put people off, punters told Mondoweiss that attempts to cancel the event and intimidate ticket-holders had simply encouraged them to attend in solidarity.
“I heard about this event through Friends of Al-Aqsa,” said Nabila, sitting in a cafe near the entrance with her husband, drinking tea.
“I’m involved with them in Bradford. I’m a teacher and the younger generation need to know about Palestine. It’s amazing they’ve been able to pull this together–only 10 days ago, they didn’t know if it would go ahead. Events like this can bring us all together, different religions, cultures, ages and backgrounds.”
As ticket-holders came through the doors, they were greeted with dates, Arabic coffee and biscuits.
“It’s a nice atmosphere, very friendly and relaxed,” said Malcolm Finch from Bournemouth. “I used to live in South Africa and the same arguments were used there to justify apartheid. Now I campaign for Palestine on social media.”
Palestine is still the issue
The first panel of the event was entitled “From Balfour to Apartheid.” Author and academic Professor Virginia Tilley spoke about apartheid and its effects in South Africa. She defined apartheid as: “when the state becomes the guardian of the system of racism.”
Tilley criticized the ideology of the two-state solution by explaining that if there are two states, then one state remains an apartheid state.
“They called this ‘grand apartheid’ in South Africa–an extension of apartheid. The correct solution was to take away divided South Africa and bring it back together for everyone to live in,” she said.
Big names such as John Pilger and professor Ilan Pappe drew the largest crowds. People stood at the back and sat on the floor of the auditorium as they spoke. They both lamented the so-called “peace process”–that provoked more frustration rather than less–and the West’s inability to understand the Palestinian issue.
Pilger spoke about the recent UN report that was quickly withdrawn after the author concluded that Israel was an apartheid state. He spoke of the outrage voiced at Israel being called an apartheid state, not because of the crime of apartheid but because someone had the courage to speak out about it.
Pappe said that people would understand the Palestine issue if they stopped focusing on the occupation and apartheid of today but went back to 1948, when Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes and the state of Israel was created. He said that 1948 is totally absent in the Palestine peace process and in most academic institutions, but it must be acknowledged for there to be a solution. And only if people go back to 1948, he continued, can the Balfour Declaration be understood.
The Palestine Expo aimed to do just this in its weekend program of talks and interactive activities: to link the everyday reality of the occupation and the siege on Gaza to 1948 and to Balfour declaration in 1917.
Britain’s dark legacy
A short film called “Balfour Road” premiered at the event on Saturday. The film is part of UK-based advocacy organization Palestinian Return Centre’s Balfour Apology Campaign.
The Palestinian Return Centre started the campaign in 2013, calling upon the UK government to officially apologize for its past colonial crimes in Palestine and the legacy of these crimes, which are still evident today. In October 2016, the organization relaunched this campaign and a petition in the Houses of Parliament ahead of the 100th anniversary of the declaration in November 2017.
The government responded to the petition calling for the UK to apologize for the Balfour Declaration in May in a statement on the UK Government and Parliament website,
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
The film is based in 2017 Britain and sees a London family evicted from their home and forced to live in their garden behind barbed wire. It switches between the past and present as the then Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour pens the short declaration to Lord Rothschild.
Film director Anas Alkarmi said that the decision to base the film in modern-day Britain was in order to relate to a UK audience, many of whom are not aware of the Balfour Declaration. The film incorporates themes of Palestinian displacement, settlements and occupation to increase understanding of how Balfour has affected Palestinians over the last 100 years.
Salah, of the Balfour Apology Campaign, said that it is the responsibility of the UK government to apologize.
“The government said no but we won’t lose hope. We will be relaunching our petition and calling on people to sign it and we will show it to MPs in parliament. This film is part of a campaign which we will continue for years. We will not give up,” he said
It isn’t just the older people calling for an apology. Palestine’s younger generation has a fire in its belly. During her speech, Leanne Mohamad also called for an apology for the Balfour Declaration.
“We deserve recognition of our state. We deserve an apology from the British state and we deserve political freedom’ said the young activist, wearing Palestinian traditional dress and a Palestinian kaffiyeh,” she said.
Mohamad is even younger than the group that Friends of Al-Aqsa are focusing its energies on #GenerationPalestine, the 18 to 30-year-olds catered for in the Palestine Expo’s Student Hub. Speakers such as outgoing President of NUS Malia Bouattia, journalist Ben White and NUS Black Students officer Ilyas Nagdee spoke on the student movement and campus activism over the weekend.
Findings from a YouGov poll commissioned in May by Palestine Solidarity Campaign show that 18 to 24-year-olds and 25 to 49-year-olds are four to five times as likely to support Palestinian rights than older people.
The Labour surge in Britain’s recent general election was achieved in part due to young people’s support of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing supporter of Palestinian rights. The terror attacks in London and Manchester during the election campaign provoked discussion of foreign policy in the Middle East and criticism of the Conservative government for selling weapons to unscrupulous regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The youth political movement is growing and as such, more young people than ever are becoming engaged with international issues.
In this anniversary year, it is imperative that Britain’s weakened government doesn’t simply atone for its historical meddling in Palestine, but that it is made accountable for its continuing support of the Israeli government at the expense of freedom and justice for the Palestinians.
Events like the Palestine Expo opposite the Houses of Parliament are symbolically and actively bringing Palestine back into the UK’s public and political consciousness.