This Saturday there will be a demonstration in Portsmouth in solidarity with the people of Gaza. For 22 days Israel has mercilessly shelled the Gaza strip. Ten days in and the F-16s were joined by a ground invasion. The aerial bombardment has been devastating. It has destroyed schools and hospitals, the only power station, UN buildings and refugee centres. At the time of writing the atrocities have claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people, the majority of which are civilians, many of these are children.
This is the latest atrocity in an injustice that dates back nearly 70 years. But there is now a palpable shift in public opinion. Solidarity has been offered from people right across the world, from Texas to Dublin, from Montreal to Rome, people have chanted “Freedom for Palestine!” Here too, ever growing numbers of people are disgusted by what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. The latest YouGov poll shows that 62% of people in the UK think that Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza and the level of support for the Palestinians is on the increase. The plight of the Palestinians is apparent for all to see.
Like so many other people I’ve seen the pictures on the news and online, deeply distressing images of innocent people who have been beaten, bombed and brutalised. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve welled up at the news of another horrific attack: At the story of the four boys killed playing football on a beach; at the sight of the man who carried the remains of his son in a plastic bag; at Jon Snow’s video and the young girl with the bruised face; at the scene from the hospital where dead bodies are being wheeled out as the newly injured are wheeled in, as though it were some desperate, macabre conveyer belt. The horrors we witness are all too real.
And yet everything seems so very far away. Some people – sympathetic to the Palestinians – have asked what we can do other than rage at the latest news report or newspaper article. What good will come from holding a demonstration? What effect can it really have? And who is going to listen? How can we make our voices heard when the media refuses to listen?
I do understand how they feel. I was one of the two million people who joined the huge anti-war demonstration in 2003 and yet still Blair backed Bush in his attack on Iraq. And people are of course spot on in their criticisms of the media bias – the BBC in particular should be thoroughly ashamed of their coverage. But protests are vital to help us raise awareness of the situation in Gaza and help build pressure on our own government who are more than happy to sell arms to the Israelis. Indeed, quite a few people from Pompey have gone up to London to protest outside the Israeli embassy over the past couple of weeks. But not everyone can make demonstrations in the capital, for a variety of reasons – work/family commitments, lack of money, problems with travel. A local demo gives these people the opportunity to voice their feelings. In fact, in addition to those London demos, there have been local protests in loads of towns and cities across the country. And they’ve been about more than just venting anger. It highlights the issues, it gets the question of Palestine solidarity in the local paper, maybe it does get some local tv coverage (I hope this protest will!), it lets more people know that there is opposition to the atrocities carried out by Israel. Given the media bias this is crucial. I’m under no illusions, it’s tough and we’re talking baby-steps, but for some people who see the demo it might be the first time they’ve ever encountered a different point of view to that of the establishment!
Do people pay attention to these protests? Well, yes, I think they do, and I’ll try to illustrate the point with two very different examples. On Saturday The Telegraph carried an interview with Philip Hammond, the government’s new Foreign Secretary, in which he was critical of Israel’s actions. Now, I don’t trust Hammond as far as I can throw him, but his words are, at least in part, a reflection of the growing number of demonstrations and protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza. “It’s a broad swathe of British public opinion that feels deeply, deeply disturbed by what it is seeing on its television screens coming out of Gaza,” he says.
The other example comes from a vigil held this past weekend at the War Memorial in Portsmouth. Nearly forty people came to the event organised by the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign in order to remember those who died in the First World War and those needlessly dying today in Gaza. Towards the end a young man approached the group and introduced himself. He was an Iraqi who had fled his homeland and travelled to England to seek asylum. He explained, “I know war. I know the horror of living with war. I just wanted to say thank you for what you are doing today.” As people went up to shake his hand he broke down and wept. That is why these demonstrations matter.
Perhaps most importantly these acts help us to build bridges locally – bringing sympathetic people together so that collectively we are stronger and louder. No one, single demo – here or in London or anywhere else for that matter- can stop what is happening in Gaza, we all know that. But every demo, stall, meeting and conversation that changes someone’s mind adds a little more to the pressure and, perhaps, inspires someone else to do something. The alternative is that we stay at home, isolated, shouting helplessly at the television, or more likely sobbing as we see the latest pictures coming out of Palestine. I simply can’t do that – and that is why I will be demonstrating next weekend.
PROTEST FOR PALESTINE: SATURDAY 9TH AUGUST, 12 NOON, GUILDHALL SQUARE, PORTSMOUTH