LONDON – Several hundred anti-Israel activists demonstrated outside the gates of Downing Street on Monday, as British Prime Minister Theresa May hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at her office.
The rally, which was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign under the banner “Justice Now: Stand up for Palestine,” also drew some 150 counter-protesters who came to show their support for Israel; the two sides were separated by barriers and heavily guarded by police.
Yelling familiar pro-Palestinian chants such as “Free Palestine,” demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and held signs with slogans such as “End Israel’s attacks on Gaza,” “Freedom for Palestine,” “Bibi bombs babies, boycott Israel” and “End the arms trade with Israel.”
Protest outside Downing Street
“We would like Theresa May to use her opportunity of having lunch with Benjamin Netanyahu to make some very clear statements to him,” Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, told The Jerusalem Post. The top priority, he said, was calling on May to make it clear to Netanyahu that Britain was serious when it supported UN Security Council Resolution 2334. “Benjamin Netanyahu reacted by effectively declaring diplomatic war on the world,” he said, referencing recent announcements by Israel that it would build new settlements.
“Theresa May should be saying to him [that] that’s unacceptable, that the British government stands for the respect of international law human rights conventions,” said Jamal.
“What we’d then like to see is the British government starting to put words into action, starting to say we’re not just going to talk about settlements as illegal, we’re going to treat them as illegal.” The organization calls for a review of Britain’s financial relationships with settlements and an exclusion of all settlement goods from UK markets.
In the blue and white section, demonstrators chanted, “You want war, we want peace,” and sang “Am Yisrael Hai.”
One protester pointed out a specific chant emanating from the larger protest section: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
“This is a call for the extermination of Israel,” said Harry Goldstein of North London Friends of Israel. “If you think about it, the only way you will abolish a country which has the support and loyalty of its people is through genocide, so that’s effectively what they’re calling for.
“We’re here to support the friendship between Britain and Israel, which is in both countries’ interests. They’re both democracies and have common interests in democracy, freedom and trade and in protecting against terrorism,” he stated.
“I would like to see two states living in peace and friendship,” he added, though he expressed skepticism over the viability of this vision.
The Zionist Federation organized the counter-protest, which was attended by Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Governors of British Jews. Addressing the crowd, he touted the friendship between Israel and Britain. “Israel remains Britain’s most steadfast and dependable ally in the Middle East, so it was absolutely right for Prime Minister Theresa May to invite him to No. 10,” he said. “His visit is important not only in Israel’s interest, but because it is very much in Britain’s interest as well, notably as regards trade, cyber security and defense against common threats such as Iran.”
Arkush told the Post that he was pleased “to see so many people, including many Christian friends, outside 10 Downing Street to welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu, particularly at short notice in the middle of a working day.”
Sister Ruth Rubens, for instance, proudly expressed her support for Israel. “Palestine has never existed in all of history, and they don’t want to recognize the state of Israel. You can’t have a two-state system if all the Muslims surrounding small, democratic Israel don’t believe in the existence of Israel and want to wipe it off and make it all Muslim,” she said passionately.
Just as there were Christians who had turned out for Israel, there was a significant Jewish presence on the pro-Palestinian side, ranging from anti-Zionist haredim to extreme leftwing activists.
Glyn Secker of the executive committee of Jews for Justice for Palestinians – a group fiercely critical of the Board of Deputies – said he had come to protest the meeting and Netanyahu’s policies. “I don’t think Israel has ever taken any notice of fine words or statements, they will only take notice if things have a material impact on Israel,” he told the Post, stating that the UK – and other European countries – should deny Israel trade agreements, and particularly arms trade.
Secker opined that if such steps were taken, the impact might prompt Israel to enter into peace negotiations.
On the same side of the protest, Maya Schkolne said she was participating as a Jewish resident who is “deeply distressed by Netanyahu’s policies and what they represent,” perceiving his stance as “absolutely opposed” to a vision of equality for all people.
Carole Lateman, who had come to welcome Netanyahu and show her support for the Israeli people, said the dichotomy of the demonstration was a sign of a healthy democratic society. “It’s very fair that both sides are allowed to express their opinions, which they are not allowed to do in many Middle Eastern countries, apart from Israel,” she told the Post. “It’s a great sign of a great democracy.”