Ceasefire protest | 11 Nov 2023 | Photo: David McAllister Ceasefire protest | 11 Nov 2023 | Photo: David McAllister

Chris Nineham examines the increasingly desperate measures the British state is taking to crack down on solidarity with Palestine

The attacks on the pro-Palestine movement are becoming farcical. Apparently, protestors are to blame for the pile-up in parliament over Wednesday’s ceasefire debate. Although he didn’t mention it at the time, the Speaker has claimed he allowed the Labour amendment and unleashed chaos on the Commons in order to protect MPs from protestors. The lobby of MPs is being reported as an attempted lockdown of parliament. 

Meanwhile a parliamentary committee report is recommending that protests are banned from parliament, councils and MPs surgeries. In the face of a movement representing the opinion of two thirds of the population, democracy clearly needs to be protected from the people.  

However surreal this all is, it is part of a concerted crackdown from the British state, and it needs to be resisted. The police have repeatedly tried to stop us marching in ‘sensitive’ areas, they routinely place restriction orders on the demonstrations and they are becoming more and more aggressive, arresting people and raiding their houses and flats because of speeches they have made, placards they are carrying, or arguments made in publications.  

Discrediting dissent

All this is partly designed to intimidate people and stop them protesting. But it is also part of a much wider ideological campaign to discredit and marginalise the movement. 

The arrests and detentions are aimed at creating the impression that the demonstrations are threatening and extremist. Hence the stream of tweets on the Met’s X account talking up the tiny number of arrests and the huge number of police that are mobilised for entirely peaceful protests.

It is a campaign that goes way beyond the police force. And although zionist organisations like the Campaign Against Anti-semitism are playing a role they are far from being the prime movers. 

It was the unlamented Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the Tory right that led the push to get what they called the ‘hate march’ banned on Armistice Day. 

The media faithfully recycles the lines of the politicians and the police. For all of them, just like the conflict in the Middle East iself, the movement pits one community against another, and it is those who support the Palestinians who are the threat to the body politic as well as the Jewish population.

The aim is to turn reality upside down and create the impression that those of us marching for peace and justice are hateful and dangerous. At the same time, the suggestion is that these are alien issues playing out in our streets, disrupting business and the lives of ‘ordinary citizens’ who care little about genocides happening thousands of miles away. 

This approach has cascaded through the institutions. The Arts Council early on issued a statement warning creatives to be careful of criticising Israel. People wearing Palestine badges have been refused entry to the National Portrait Gallery. University and school managements are imposing silence on the issue and in particular clamping down on any expression of support for the Palestinians. 

A position of weakness 

It is an impressive operation on some levels. Despite the sickening images of death and destruction circulating everywhere on social media, this may change in the weeks ahead, but at the moment there is less open division in the establishment and fewer dissenting voices in the mainstream than there were during the Iraq War. There is a real climate of fear in many institutions and workplaces. 

But in other terms it simply isn’t working. The offensive hasn’t stopped people from marching in the most sustained cycle of mass protests in British history. And on the actual issues it is a failure. Latest polls from this month show support for a ceasefire is up 6% on November’s figure, and that more and more people sympathise with the Palestinians. Very worryingly for the elites, two thirds of the population think that Israel must get into talks with Hamas, which means about 30 million people are regularly committing thought crimes. Most significant of all, only 13% think that Israel’s offensive should continue. 

The reality is it is the ruling class and their pathetic underlings heading up universities, civil service departments, schools and other institutions who are isolated, not us. 

This is important because it shows the attacks don’t come from a position of strength. It is one instance of a general decline in trust in British institutions. Over the last few years, the ruling class has toyed with more authoritarian methods because they are concerned about growing anger and declining consent for their policies. 

And it is no accident that it has come to a head over Palestine. It goes right to the heart of a big problem for the ruling class. Despite the rhetoric, the issue is a central one for them. The Middle East remains the world’s largest supplier of oil and Israel is the West’s most faithful watchdog. Playing a part in the US’s foreign wars and bolstering support for Israel are priorities for the rulers of this decaying post-colonial power. 

Awkwardly, with the partial exception of Ukraine where there is more support for the war, the British population no longer support the wars and the imperial delusions that lie behind them.  As a result, foreign wars have emerged as a central point of vulnerability for the British establishment. It is no coincidence that the two biggest demonstrations in the whole of British history – the two million-strong demonstration against the Iraq War on 15 February 2003 and now the Palestine demonstration of 800,000 on 11 November last year – have both been about foreign policy. 

Pushing back 

First, we need to tackle head on the idea that this is about two communities and the Islamophobic notion that the movement is a threat. Anyone who has been on the demonstrations knows that they are incredibly diverse, inclusive and peaceful marches drawing in people from all communities including thousands of Jewish people. There has not been a single conviction on the marches for assault. 

There is no homogenous Jewish opinion about Israel’s genocide. A recent poll commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle found that 40 % of Jewish people are against curbs of Palestine marches. 

Almost all the arrests used to suggest that the movement is hateful and disorderly are for holding placards or chanting slogans, mostly ones that are definitely not hateful and are almost certainly not illegal. We need to take up all the cases politically, go public and fight on the issue of civil liberties and against the attacks on the Muslim community. We need to show that it is not the movement that is threatening democracy but those who would attack the right to protest.

Second, we need to keep broadening the movement and building the demonstrations. There is a reason why the establishment is so keen to marginalise the movement. Wednesday’s parliamentary chaos underlined how this united, disciplined and genuinely mass movement is creating turmoil in the institutions. 

And for all their bluster, the truth is every single time the police have tried to ban protests, the movement has defied them and they have had to back down. 

We also have to escalate, and this means making connections that the authorities are desperate to stop us making. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, and the day before the next national demonstration, the movement is calling for another workplace day of action in solidarity with Palestinian women. We want workplace rallies, meetings, protests, discussions, badge wearing, whatever can be done to take the issue of Palestine into the heart of the working class. 

In the process we need to put the case that militarism abroad and austerity at home are two sides of the same coin. We need to make it clear that every pound spent on weapons for Israel or Ukraine for that matter is a pound not spent on schools, hospitals, wages or welfare. And we need to double down on the fact that the priorities of the political elites are not shared by the vast majority of the British people. 

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.