When pro-Palestinian demonstrations started in many European capitals at the beginning of the recent Israeli offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza, no one expected the protests to attract tens of thousands of people or to continue to gather momentum even after the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
The message of the demonstrations has been very clear: the international solidarity movement with the Palestinians is alive and well despite all Israel’s attempts since the Gaza War of 2014 to stigmatise any criticism of its policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as “anti-Semitic.”
Israeli officials and commentators have been concerned that the participants in the massive demonstrations in London, Paris, Madrid and Berlin, among other European cities, do not see the war as a conflict between equal parties having contradictory claims over land and history, but as one between an oppressor and oppressed.
This is a straightforward matter of racial justice, the right to self-determination and an uprising against an apartheid regime for the demonstrators.
The Israeli justifications for its military campaign as a response to the firing of rockets by Hamas and Israel’s right to self-defence have not persuaded the demonstrators. For many, what sparked the initial confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians was the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem in line with the Israeli policy of expelling Palestinians from East Jerusalem and replacing them with Israeli settlers.
The inter-communal clashes between Jews and Arabs living in the territories occupied in 1948 also shed further light on the discrimination exercised against Palestinians living in Israel as second-class citizens, .
Placards seen during the demonstrations in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford, Leicester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and other British cities displayed how in the age of Black Lives Matter (BLM) the solidarity movement with the Palestinians is perceived. It is now part of the international conversation about race, justice, agency, historical grievances and accountability.
There were people of all ages and ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds at the demonstrations, but above all there were plenty of young people, regulars in the MeToo Movement, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. Many placards said “Palestine Can’t Breathe” and “Palestinian Lives Matter” (PLM).
In the UK, the Palestinian cause was also championed by many politicians and leading figures from popular culture from top fashion influencers to artists and footballers with millions of followers.
“It is not difficult to see the parallels between the Black Lives Matter Movement and support for Palestinians. The two movements revolve around justice, racial discrimination, police brutality and reforming an unjust criminal system,” Elia May, one of the protesters during last week’s demonstrations in the UK, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“No matter how much Israel tries to blame the Palestinians, its ability to persuade European public opinion is diminishing. At a time of social media and widespread coverage of what is happening in Gaza, Israel is fighting a losing battle. Even many Israelis criticise their government,” she said.
Prominent UK Guardian newspaper columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote that “Israel knows that it has endured a strategic disaster…Those with a strong connection to Israel scratch their heads at this, wondering why, of all the appalling things going on in the world, this is the one that cuts through.”
Freedland said that searching for an explanation was secondary, noting that many observers were wondering if a turning point had been reached in the way the Israel-Palestine conflict was seen around the world, especially in the West.
Many will disagree with Freedland in giving priority to the consequences over the explanation of why world public opinion is turning against Israel. Not focusing on the causes and putting every criticism in the context of anti-Semitism is like burying one’s head in the sand.
Israel under its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and government made up of far-right parties that reject a two-state solution has been made into an apartheid regime. Even politicians and lawmakers in the US, Israel’s leading ally, do not hesitate to say this.
US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez branded Israel an “apartheid state” last week, supporting a move to delay the transfer of arms to Israel. Other influential figures in the Democratic Party, such as Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib, have criticised US President Joe Biden for his weak position on the Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza.
In the UK, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and former shadow interior minister Diane Abbott spoke against “apartheid,” the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and the systematic expulsion of indigenous people during mass demonstrations over the past three weeks.
Israel’s failure to silence critical voices with intimidation, bullying and the anti-Semitism card had led some UK commentators to try to diminish any criticism of Israel by labelling anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism.
Writing in the right-wing newspaper the Daily Telegraph, commentator Stephen Pollard wrote that anti-Zionism was simply “the acceptable new face” of anti-Semitism, allying with “woke” notions of social justice that rely on identity politics.
Israeli groups have sought to pressure Google to censor content that includes criticism of Zionism, claiming that it is a form of anti-Semitism. The pushback against those attempts has been fast.
However, the huge public support for the Palestinian people in Europe has not yet had a political impact.
EU foreign ministers have issued no joint statement on Israel since 2016. As recently as February 2020, after former US president Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, among others, blocked an EU statement.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz flew the Israeli flag over the chancellery in Vienna, a gesture that led Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to cancel a visit to Vienna, where the nuclear talks between the US and Iran are reaching a decisive stage.
France’s diplomatic service has issued nine communiques calling for restraint since 26 April, however. In Italy, workers blocked arms at a Livorno port bound for Israel, and the country’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, called for the EU to adopt a united position. Editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Aluf Benn summarised the military confrontation with Hamas as the “most failed and pointless border war” in Israel’s history, warning of dreadful consequences.
The Black Lives Matter Movement can take much of the credit for helping citizens in Europe and worldwide to understand the mechanisms of structural racism and oppression. The links between the Black struggle and the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Palestinian struggle and the Palestinian Lives Matter Movement are seeing the weight of international public opinion turning against Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly