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Palestine Protesters Vow to Keep Marching Despite Fresh Clampdown Threats, as Muslim Council Blasts Islamophobic Rhetoric

Palestine protest organisers believe senior Government officials are placing heavy pressure on police to clamp down on their demonstrations

Mounted police officers monitoring a recent Gaza protest in London. Photo: Avpics / Alamy

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Pro-Palestine groups and human rights campaigners have vowed to oppose “growing attacks” against the right to protest in the UK, as politicians and parts of the press ramp up the rhetoric against the Gaza ceasefire demonstrations taking place weekly across the country. 

On Tuesday night, Home Secretary James Cleverly suggested pro-ceasefire marchers should stop protesting, telling the Times that they’ve “made their point” and are “not really saying anything new”. 

And some Government-linked figures are now pushing for a fresh raft of anti-protest laws – including Lord Woodcock (Baron Walney), the UK Government’s adviser on political violence and disruption. 

This week, he claimed that the “aggressive intimidation of MPs” by so-called “mobs” was being “mistaken” for an “expression of democracy” as he called for an ‘exclusion zone’ to be placed outside of Parliament to restrict protest, in the name of protecting MPs. 

There have also been calls to ban political messages being projected onto Parliament, as happened last week when activists projected the contested slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” onto the Palace of Westminster. 

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“Overwhelmingly Peaceful”

At a press conference on Wednesday, Palestine Solidarity Campaign director Ben Jamal hit back at the calls for fresh clampdowns, and said peaceful protesters were being wrongly tarred as extremists. 

He pointed to a mass lobby event last week, which saw 3,000 people “stand in line for four hours to speak to their MPs.” Another 80,000 people wrote to their MPs to back an immediate ceasefire. 

“It was presented as a suspicious act by Islamist extremists seeking to threaten and intimidate MPs. This narrative is now being used to suggest that special measures need to be introduced…banning or restricting the rights to protest outside MPs’ offices, council chambers, and parliament itself.

“We do not accept in any way shape or form that there is something problematic with peaceful protests. outside entities offices, council chambers of Parliament,” Jamal added.

And the PSC director asserted that the official marches have been “overwhelmingly peaceful”, and attended by a wide range of communities.

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“As to the narrative that they are making the streets unsafe for Jewish people, it ignores the fact that at each of these marches there are 1,000s of Jewish people marching in an organised Jewish bloc. All of them feel safe marching. And all of them, by the way, proudly chant the Palestinian slogan of liberation ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’” Jamal said.

The chant has been criticised as antisemitic by some for the suggestion that it could suggest the abolition or destruction of the state of Israel from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean, a claim PSC and Stop the War Coalition strongly deny. 

Chris Nineham, national officer for the Stop the War Coalition – a co-organiser of the protests – said that despite the “extraordinary level of hysteria” the protests have been “overwhelmingly peaceful”.

“It’s the biggest cycle of protests we’ve seen…But there has been a tiny number of arrests. At the last demonstration, there were a total of 12 arrests and on average, the number of arrests is three times less than the number of arrests in an average year at Glastonbury, per person involved. The number of arrests is less than the average Premier League football match per person involved. 

“The overwhelming majority of these arrests are for wearing an [offensive] t-shirt, having a placard, or chanting a slogan that the police rejected. None of it is necessarily illegal…The overwhelming majority of arrests don’t lead to charges as far as we can tell. 

“There is not a single example on any of our demonstrations of any violent incident towards a bystander of any kind, whether a politician or anyone else. There is simply no case to be made that these demonstrations are threatening, disorderly, violent in any way.

“The argument that they are is a complete fantasy. It’s a fiction dreamed up…largely in these corridors of power and then amplified by sections of the media,” Nineham told press. 

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Over-Policing Claims

The Gaza protests have faced intense scrutiny from the political Right, with former Home Secretary Suella Braverman going as far as to push for a ban on a November demonstration. 

Nineham said the police remained under intense pressure to clamp down on their protests: “Since [November] they have tried to stop his marching into the centres of power. At least twice, we’ve had a strong attempt to stop us marching towards Downing Street and Parliament.” 

He claimed police had rolled out an “unprecedented” number of restriction orders – so-called Section 12, 14 and 60 orders which place limits on protests.

“[They] have been deployed against all of the [Gaza] demonstrations…[They] haven’t been applied to comparable mass protests over trade union issues, austerity issues, or actually over the Iraq war, the wars in Libya or Ukraine. 

“There’s been a level of aggression in policing, a kind of over-policing that’s been exceptional as well. The police say they use record numbers of officers, and they mobilise record numbers [against our] protests. 

“Just to give you some indication, they tell us there are about 1700-1800 police officers for most of these demonstrations. At Pride on an average year, there’s 150 officers that are deployed, which is an event maybe half the size of our average protest.”

Nineham alleged that police themselves have said repeatedly to demonstrators that they are under “huge pressure” from politicians.  

“This whole movement is being attacked, we believe as a way of deflecting from the central problem, which is that the overwhelming majority of people in this country want to see a ceasefire, and our Government refuses to back that demand.”

Asked by Byline Times whether he expects Sir Keir Starmer to repeal anti-protest laws if elected this year, host John McDonnell MP said: “Across the Labour and trade union movement, there’s a real anxiety now about the way in which fundamental human rights are under attack by this Government.” 

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“There will be a general view within the whole of the movement that what we need to do is reassert our civil liberties. That may well result in some of the legislation we’ve seen so far being repealed,” the Labour left-winger added.

Yasmine Adam, head of politics at the Muslim Council of Britain told the conference she believed much of the rhetoric against the Gaza protests was driven by Islamophobia, with peaceful Muslims presented as extremists. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters have been tainted as “mob” by senior Conservatives and some commentators.

Ased if she believes Labour and the Conservatives are institutionally Islamophobic, she said: “Yes.” PM Sunak and most ministers refuse to use the word “Islamophobic”, instead using the phrase “anti-Muslim hate”.

Amid concerns over MPs’ safety, Yasmine Adam pointed to an alleged failure to address safety concerns from pro-Palestine MPs. Labour’s Zarah Sultana has “faced huge numbers of threats because of her outspokenness on Palestine,” she said. 

“[Yet] Keir Starmer has refused to raise those concerns when talking about MPs’ safety for example. When Zarah Sultana asked at PMQs for an end to the genocide, the PM’s reply was [basically] ‘she should ask Hamas and the Houthis to stop the killing’. 

“If that’s not Islamophobic, I don’t really know what it is. It’s so widespread and normalised that it’s second nature to these parties.” 

On Wednesday, the Government announced a £31m package to provide extra security measures for MPs.

Non-profit monitoring group Tell Mama documented 2,010 Islamophobic incidents between 7 October and 7 February, the BBC reported last week, marking a sharp rise from the 600 it recorded for the same period the year before.

All the organisers said they were committed to continuing the protests, at least until there is a ceasefire in Gaza.

The press conference came as the courts considered a claim by Liberty and other human rights groups today challenging the legality of recent anti-protest legislation.

Government Responds

Asked by Byline Times if the Government was putting pressure on the police to clamp down on Gaza protests, the PM’s spokesman said: “No, we obviously do completely continue to enshrine the operational independence of the police.”

The official spokesman claimed that a Government-organised meeting this Wednesday of the PM and the National Police Chiefs Council was “normal”.

“The Prime minister and Home Secretary have regularly met with police chiefs to talk about the issues that communities people [have]…This afternoon’s roundtable will also address the additional funding that we’re providing to protect our democratic processes and institutions.”

He denied that pressure would be applied to police chiefs to take a tougher line on Gaza protests, saying: “No, there will be a discussion consistent with our approach…It’s entirely routine and normal…to talk to the police about the operational challenges that they face, but also the concerns that people in this country face.”

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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