British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Twitter feed is quiet of news of Palestine, she has not written a heartfelt message or postponed her busy schedule to remember the dead. Instead of condemning Israeli forces for killing Palestinians or criticizing U.S. president Donald Trump for moving his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the conservative leader got her spokesperson to say that “we are concerned by reports of violence and loss of life in Gaza,” urging calm to “avoid actions destructive to peace efforts.” Theresa May is busy finalizing a weapons deal with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in London on a three-day visit.
May 14 was the bloodiest day in Palestine since Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in July 2014. Over 60 men, women and children were killed and 1,400 injured in Gaza while taking part in the eighth Great March of Return, a weekly march towards the Israeli imposed border fence, that began on Land Day on 30 March to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba.
Palestinians mark the Nakba, or Catastrophe, on May 15 every year. It refers to the mass expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians and the grabbing of 78 percent of Palestinians’ land that took place between 1947 and 1949, with the state of Israel being established on 14 May 1948. Entire villages were eradicated, leaving people internally displaced or forced to flee over borders into Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. For Palestinians, the Nakba continues today.
“The Nakba is a pain that never goes away, this feeling of injustice and sadness,” said Elisa, a third-generation Palestinian, at a solidarity demonstration for Gaza outside the Israeli embassy, on May 11.
“I feel like I have to be here because our voice needs to be heard. The more of us that are willing to raise our voice and make Palestine visible, the more likely that we will find peace and freedom for Palestine,” says the Chile-born student who is in London studying for an MA in Translation.
In the capital, Palestinians and solitary activists have been taking part in multiple protests against the countries and the institutions that enable the Nakba: since last Friday, there were demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy, the U.S. embassy, the Saudi embassy and the BBC. May 15 saw an emergency demonstration following the killings in Gaza outside the Prime Minister’s office of 10 Downing Street with 2,000 people, followed by a vigil in Parliament Square.
Around Britain, there have also been demonstrations, talks and cultural events commemorating the Palestinian experience of dispossession. In Nottingham, there have been debke performances and workshops, in Cardiff, a replica separation wall was recently displayed in the town center, and, in Manchester, a Palestinian refugee camp has been set up to listen to stories of resistance and exile.
Justice, justice, you shall seek justice
Around 800 people attended the demonstration held on Kensington High Street in London, as close to the Israeli embassy as protesters could go, which is around the corner. Squashed between heavy traffic on one side and shoppers on the other, hemmed in by fences and police, people were physically restricted but still made their voices heard. On the other side of the road, around 40 Israeli supporters waved flags and wrapped them around their bodies, taking it in turns to shout into a megaphone as they chanted slogans, mainly about Hamas.
Speakers at the event, organized by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Palestinian Forum in Britain and Olive, included former National Union of Students president Malia Bouattia, musician David Randall, and Rob Abrams, from left-wing Jewish group Jewdas, a group that recently soared to fame after the mainstream British press and politicians condemned opposition party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for accepting the group’s invitation to attend a Passover dinner with them, during which people waved a beetroot in the air and shouted “f**k capitalism”.
As Rob started talking, the counter demonstrators raised their voices. “I’ve gone from being a nuisance in the community to a traitor, a kofer [denier],” he said, addressing both the Palestine campaigners and the Israel supporters across the road.
“They call me a traitor but for many of us in my position, there’s a sense of betrayal when you realize the grand ideals that you were taught as a kid were a lie and a false promise. When I was growing up, my community taught me that one of the most important principles of the Torah was in a simple line: ‘justice, justice, you shall seek justice,'” Rob said.
“Promises of self-determination, promises of democracy are an utter sham as long as innocent protesters are being killed and Palestinian homes are being bulldozed. If I have a message to the people across the road right now, it’s this. Justice is indiscriminate. Justice is inconvenient. And justice always prevails,” Rob continued.
Media coverage of Palestine has long been accused of denying Palestinians’ justice due to a bias towards Israel, of casting doubt on the testimony of Palestinians with words chosen to imply that killings by Israeli forces are the result of “clashes” or “violence” from Palestinian protesters, such as recent reports on Gaza’s march of return, say demonstrators outside the BBC’s London headquarters.
Around 30 people braved the rain on May 12 to demonstrate outside the BBC’s London headquarters, demanding the inclusion of more Palestinian voices and honest reporting from the media corporation.
“The BBC’s reporting on everything to do with Palestine and Israel takes this amazing biased perception, even for them,” said Nikki, from London.
She thinks that any slightly more even-handed coverage is attacked. “If they want to be a fair broadcasting corporation and not just a hand of the British Foreign Office, then they need to withstand that pressure and tell the truth”, she said.
When asked if public perception depends on how issues are portrayed by mainstream media, Nikki says it depends. “While it still has a huge impact, there’s so much alternative media these days that it doesn’t have the monolithic effect that it used to.”
After a series of open-mic speeches, demonstrators left the BBC studios and marched down Oxford Circus on the road, one of the busiest in the country, towards the Saudi embassy where police swiftly arrived, telling everyone to step off the gravel near the embassy gates.
Saudi Arabia has recently improved its economic and trade relations with Israel, and the countries are in talks about Iran, leading many Palestinians to accuse Saudi Prince Salman of normalization, with an Arabic hashtag on Twitter doing the rounds: #normalisationisbetrayal.
A bloody day
As Palestinians were dying on stretchers in Gaza on 14 May, one of the most blatant normalization attempts was taking place just 49 miles away, with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner opening the US embassy in West Jerusalem with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
A few hours later, a hundred protesters gathered outside the American embassy, also newly opened, in London that same evening, calling for the reversal of the embassy decision and for increased political pressure on Israel, the U.S. and the UK by Palestine supporters.
Najla, an elderly Palestinian woman, is still and silent for most of the energetic demonstration, holding a placard with a quote from Palestinian writer and leader Ghassan Kanafani: “You have something in this world… stand up for it!”
Najla is from Saffuriyya, a village near Nazareth from where residents were forcibly displaced during the Nakba. Her parents fled to Lebanon and she was born in Ein al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, located in Beirut.
“As a Palestinian, your life is as a refugee, you are always thinking to go back to Palestine,” says Najla, who, after I ask her age, tells me she doesn’t reveal that secret to anyone.
“The Nakba is a tragedy created by the British government, a government that doesn’t want to admit the atrocities they have been involved in – shame on them.” She has lived in the UK for 30 years and, although she has never been to Palestine, she speaks of returning.
“One day, we will come back to Palestine and stay in our country. They tell me that the village doesn’t exist anymore, but I am from there, I am from Saffuriyya, Nazra.”
There are Palestinian songs and chants in Arabic, the mood is upbeat and determined, despite the tragedies of the day which are close to home for the many Palestinian demonstrators. Speakers call for people to commit to BDS – the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement – and to target specific companies, because it is a tactic that works. Several police vans arrive, and people start to walk in the road, towards the front of the embassy building.
Chants continue as police form a line in front of the embassy, with officers surrounding the group.
As I watch the police doing their job, I think back to Elisa’s words from the demonstration I went to on Friday outside the Israeli embassy, when she called for the end to the British government’s weapons trade with Israel, for politicians to “stand on the right side of history,” and to abide by international law and courts. I remember her keffiyeh and Palestine sweater, and how she said she feels as a Palestinian living in the diaspora.
“It’s terrible to think that in the world we live in, people are unable to see a truth as clear as this, as what’s happening in Palestine and why we deserve to be free.”