LONDON: Police were forced to intervene Saturday afternoon after a rally for Palestine encountered pro-Israel counter-demonstrators in the streets of the UK capital.
Pro-Palestine protesters were forced to stop several times on their planned route between Grosvenor Square and Parliament Square when a small but vocal group waving Israeli flags appeared in their path.
Brief shouting matches occurred before scores of police officers descended upon the scene, separating the two groups with cordons and shunting the pro-Israel activists down side streets away from the main rally before dispersing them.
On a handful of occasions, the two groups encountered each other, spitting vitriol back and forth before the police stepped in and established cordons separating them. “Terrorist!” shouted one pro-Palestine supporter at a man with an Israeli flag. “Vile Jew hater!” he shot back.
Rupert Gude, who sought a moment of repose in the doorway of a clothes shop, said: “The police are not doing enough to control the Israelis. The Israelis have come here as an obstructive force. It was a very peaceful demonstration when it started, and now everyone is getting excited and frustrated.”
Organizers said thousands of pro-Palestine supporters had turned out to express solidarity with the cause, in a rally timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain lent its support to a Jewish national homeland.
“It’s a crying shame,” said pensioner John Lloyd, who shuffled down Oxford Street beneath recently strung Christmas lights. A sign hung around his neck read, “Balfour Declaration of War on Palestinian Self-Determination.”
“It was just imperial aggression (and) the result is a people who have suffered (by) having their rights their self determination denied,” Lloyd said.
Many attendees said that the theme of the march, “Make it Right for Palestine,” was particularly resonant a century after Balfour was issued.
“Balfour is what condemned an entire population to a century of colonialism, destruction and imprisonment… This is a mark of shame upon the history of this country,” said Leanne Mohamed, a London schoolgirl and activist, in a speech at the start of the rally.
But a counter-protester who gave his name as Avi vehemently disagreed. “I think the centenary for Balfour is something to celebrate,” he told Arab News.
“I think this march is unhelpful… it doesn’t talk about building a second part of the solution in the region, which is the establishment of two states,” he said, struggling to be heard as fellow pro-Israeli protester blasted a traditional Hebrew song on a saxophone in the direction of the pro-Palestine demonstrators.
On the streets of Mayfair, shoppers gawked and security guards at some of London’s luxe boutiques whispered behind shuttered doors as the pro-Palestine rally encountered the counter protest.
“We’re here today to mark the years and years of oppression since Balfour,” said Finola Owens, shivering despite the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf wrapped around her neck, as police channeled pro-Israeli counter protesters down a side street. She lamented the “20-odd people … preventing thousands of people from continuing on their march. That is representative of what is happening in Israel,” she said.
Despite charges from the pro-Israel contingent to the contrary, pro-Palestine demonstrators strongly denied accusations of anti-Semitism.
“The Israeli lobby attempts to define any serious criticism of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic, and as Jews we say that’s nonsense,” said Glyn Secker, who marched with the group “Jews for Justice for Palestinians.”
“Israel is a state and it can be criticized like any other state,” he said.
While the march was held to coincide with the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the effects of the document are still acutely felt in Palestine today, insisted Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which coordinated the rally. The British government has a duty to prevent further abuses, he said.
“Our message to the British government today is to say ‘you have responsibilities now. There is an ongoing injustice’,” he told Arab News. “The British government remains complicit because it is not putting pressure on Israel to abide by international law and to stop oppressing the Palestinian people.”
The Balfour Declaration is “not over,” said Mustafa Barghouti, an activist and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “It’s being implemented in the West Bank, in Gaza and in Jerusalem through settlement activities and through the system of apartheid that it was founded upon.”
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, said Saturday’s rally was just the beginning of a broader project to win official recognition of the State of Palestine. “We’re not going to stop this campaign. It doesn’t stop here with speeches and a rally.”
“We have to force (the UK) government to recognize once and for all the Palestinian state since its official stance is a two-state solution. They have recognized the state of Israel. This time now, after 100 years, they have to recognize the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people and to the state.”