On 11 November, Armistice Day, some 800,000 people, a crowd larger than the population of Manchester, congregated in Central London to march in solidarity with Palestine. Measuring the exact size of demonstrations on this scale is difficult. In 2019, the Met said that it didn’t ‘have the expertise’ to make accurate calculations and would no longer release estimates. That policy seems to have been discarded; the Met said there were ‘more than 300,000’ marchers on 11 November. But it seems likely that the protest was one of the largest in British history, and certainly the largest in response to an international cause since the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The turnout was owed to the organising efforts of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al-Aqsa, and many activist and community groups, but it also reflected the wide gulf between the feelings of the British public – more than half of whom support the call for a ceasefire or a pause in Israel’s military action – and the positions of the government and senior figures on Labour’s front bench. At the march, ‘Keir Starmer, shame on you’ was as popular a chant as ‘Rishi Sunak is a wasteman.’
For all the bluster from politicians and the right-wing press about ‘disrespect’, there is no better occasion than Armistice Day on which to advocate for a ceasefire in a war zone. For many, mourning the British killed in the terrible conflicts of the 20th century is not incompatible with mourning the Palestinians who are currently being killed by Israeli forces in Gaza. Any blindness in this respect is evidence not just of a racialised regime in which some lives are considered more grievable than others, but also of a disregard of the historical intersections between British imperial history and the vicissitudes of Palestinian self-determination. No one in government wants to remember the Armistice of Mudros – which was signed by the British government and the Ottoman Empire two weeks before the general armistice in 1918 and paved the way for the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine – or the irreconcilable promises made during the First World War to Arab rebels (who had been essential in securing an alliance against the Ottomans) and Zionists (via the Balfour Declaration).
As home secretary, Suella Braverman attributed a series of increasingly inhumane and insupportable policies to the ‘will of the people’; one of the claims she made in her last few days in office was that those on the march ‘insist their agenda trumps any notion of the broader public good’. The idea that a mass outpouring of grief over preventable civilian casualties could be at odds with the ‘public good’ is perverse. To Braverman, the people who go on demonstrations are not citizens or members of the public but ‘activists’ (asked on Sky News whether she had ever been on any sort of demonstration, she replied: ‘That’s a very good question – I haven’t, no’). Her successor, James Cleverly, seems to favour a more muted authoritarianism. Questioned on the Today programme about the Supreme Court’s rejection of the government’s Rwanda plan, he defended the use of emergency laws to bypass the ruling. ‘Find me two lawyers,’ he said, ‘and I will give you three opinions.’
The people on the march didn’t share a single political ‘agenda’. Asked for their views regarding Israel’s territorial rights and the limits of self-defence, they would have varied widely in their responses. But they weren’t there to propose policies; they were there to dissent from the idea that any form of peace, including the fanciful ‘total annihilation of Hamas’, could result from Israel’s current course of action. Many of the marchers called on the British government to stop arming Israel and to stop lending it legitimacy on the international stage.
The march progressed south from Marble Arch across the river to the US embassy. My friend and I peeled off early in an effort to avoid the crush that would follow its official finish at 4 p.m. Away from the main drag, people were kneeling on prayer mats, chatting, handing out snacks to tired kids. A small crowd barrelled past us at Victoria Station chanting ‘Shame on you!’ at a man who was moving away from them as fast as he could. It turned out to be Michael Gove, looking, as he often does, like someone who has woken up from a bad dream in which he was Michael Gove. Within minutes, a number of police officers, excited to have something important to do, had descended on the crowd, broken it up and bundled Gove into a van. Wandering back towards Parliament Square in search of a bus, we stumbled on the remnants of the far-right counterprotest, still milling about beneath the statue of Churchill. They had gathered at the Cenotaph to ‘pay their respects’, but in a manner that led to more than a hundred arrests. A drunk man screaming ‘Free Israel!’ was being handcuffed while a group of tourists took photographs of Big Ben and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. When we reached the river, we noticed that the London Eye had been lit up in the colours of the Palestinian flag. ‘Someone’s getting fired tomorrow,’ my friend said. Later we realised that the red and green were supposed to represent a poppy.
Since the 7 October attacks, it has become common for politicians and commentators, whatever their political orientation, to behave as if mourning is a limited commodity. The logic according to which a march for peace can’t exist alongside a remembrance ceremony is also a logic that rejects our capacity to mourn the deaths of Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike. The reverent official attitude to Armistice Day often occludes the remembrance of individuals and organisations, from the No-Conscription Fellowship to the Independent Labour Party, which were opposed to Britain’s entry into the First World War, as well as the long history of 11 November as a day of protest for peace, especially during the CND campaigns of the 1980s: the 1983 demonstration is another candidate for the largest ever held in London.
Wars don’t end on a single day. Long after 11 November 1918, British garrisons remained in the former Ottoman territories to monitor and enforce an unsteady peacekeeping campaign. A month after the Armistice, as revellers in Britain celebrated the return of thousands of demobilised soldiers, a regiment stationed near the Palestinian village of Surafend discovered that a soldier had been shot during an altercation with a local thief. The regiment – which consisted of soldiers from Scotland and the Anzac Mounted Division, most of whom had fought the Ottomans at the Battle of Beersheba the previous autumn – wanted revenge. Fortifying themselves with a ‘good issue of rum’, they made their way into the village and massacred around a hundred Arab and Bedouin civilians. In 2017, as part of Australia’s celebrations of the centenary of the First World War, a troupe of volunteer cosplayers were shipped out to Israel to re-enact the Battle of Beersheba for Netanyahu and other dignitaries, who hailed the Anzac Mounted Division for its part in the eventual creation of the state of Israel.
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