Organizers of British anti-war protests turn eye toward Gaza

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the Israeli Embassy in London have been gathering daily since the beginning of the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. (Giora Hirsch)

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the Israeli Embassy in London have been gathering daily since the beginning of the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. (Giora Hirsch)

LONDON (JTA) — When more than 1 million people marched in central London five years ago to protest against the Iraq wars, it was the biggest demonstration ever seen in the British capital. Now the Stop the War Coalition, the umbrella organization which arranged that demonstration and others against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken over the planning of protests against Israel’s military action in Gaza.

In the first few days of the Israeli aerial attacks on the Gaza Strip, Muslim organizations held daily protests near the Israeli Embassy in London. A few hundred people took part, most of them Muslims, many Palestinians. The demonstrators carried banners, chanted anti-Israel slogans and clashed with police as they tried to make their way toward the embassy compound.

In advance of a rally Jan. 3, the Stop the War Coalition took over, calling a news conference with politicians and several celebrities.

Buses were arranged to bring in demonstrators from other cities. Protesters were asked to bring "old shoes," with organizers saying that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has "joined with George Bush in stopping a unanimous call by the United Nations for Israel to stop bombing immediately."

Organizers said the idea was in the spirit of Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, "who used his shoes to protest over George Bush’s war crimes." They were to be left at Downing Street to "register our disgust at Brown’s action.”

More than 10,000 people demonstrated, and when police prevented marchers from nearing the gate of Brown’s office, many flung the shoes at police.

Now the coalition is planning a Jan. 10 multi-issue gathering that organizers promise will be “the biggest demonstration yet seen" — in England — "in the cause of Palestinian freedom.”

The coalition was established at the end of 2001 with the stated aim “to stop the war currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism.’ " The war in Iraq, which was controversial in Britain, became the organization’s focus for several years. Now the main focus is the war in Afghanistan.

British troops are not fighting in Gaza, but a look at the organizations that make up the coalition reveals that many are either Muslim or far-left groups with a longtime interest in Israeli-Palestinian issues.

"These demonstrations are composed of the ‘usual suspects’ — the far left and Muslim groups, who have very hostile attitudes towards Israel," said Robin Shepherd, a researcher with the prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.

Shepherd added that the demonstrations have not been very big if one takes into account the number of people living in London, and especially the number of Muslims in the British capital.

Just as during the Iraq war, local Muslim leaders are claiming that events abroad “anger and frustrate” young members of the community, making them prone to radicalization.

Among the speakers at the Jan. 3 rally was the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who justified Hamas rockets fired at Israeli towns, and called on Britain and other European countries to recall their ambassadors from Israel in protest of the attacks against Gaza.

Livingstone told the demonstrators, “Londoners are with you and with the people of Gaza.”

NEXT STORY