Posted by: pascoesabido | January 12, 2009

Marching for Gaza – unavoidable bias and inevitable violence?

Saturday 10th January, somewhere round-about the Israeli embassy.

20,000 people discarded apathy to make themselves heard against the atrocious violence against Palestinian civilians committed by the Israelis: close to a thousand Palestinians have already been killed, nearly four thousand wounded, and all in the name of killing terrorists – how many dead are terrorists? I wouldn’t bother asking Israeli news networks as they swallow the figures spouted by the military. The Israeli Defence Forces have granted themselves a carte blanche when attacking targets in Gaza, destroying not only non-partisan homes containing families, but the lifeline of sustained civilisations – schools (normally full of refugees or children), universities, hospitals, places of worship. What hope is there of rebuilding? who will do it?

SWP on the march

I joined at High Street Kensington, the march – organised by Stop The War Coalition among others – already in full flow and arriving at its destination, the Israeli embassy. Around me were Muslims, Socialist Workers Party members, students, Londoners; believers in Allah with religious solidarity and those whose belief system denounced the ongoing massacres. Chants rose from the streets, “be us one or be us million, we are all Palestinian”; placards cried out against the occupation and the murderers, calling for a free Palestine.

A buzz was in the air, solidarity lending weight behind a cause, but as with all mass protests, a tension existed, a dread that things could turn nasty. The march had ground to a halt outside the embassy, bottle-necked from the police closing off all side streets and an enormous banner blocking the road. But still aggression was absent.

A balaclava-wearing ‘youth’ pushes back through the crowd – the first sign of menace – but a middle-aged Muslim standing next to me, in traditional dress and holding a placard, stops him: he questions what he’s doing and warns him not to cause trouble, not to undermine the cause. People don’t want violence apart from those looking for violence. The anonymous young man shrugs and carries on pushing through, most likely to launch a ‘missile’ at the police a few hours later – not the sort of ‘missile’ the Israelis are firing – nor Hamas.

Unfortunately, arriving at the main stage reminded me why most activism is its own worst enemy – its unwaveringly hijacked by extremist tendencies. I don’t want to hear someone carrying on about the destruction of Israel and replacing the Zionist flag outside the embassy with a Palestinian one – what good is rhetoric like that? more incitement, more tension, more mutual hatred. What are we looking for – an eternal continuation of hostilities, much as we’ve been seeing, or some sort of a solution, peace? If international support and blanket condemnation of Israel is what the goal is – as well as obviously a cease to hostilities – don’t then go and alienate people. Israelis are coming out against the military action, at home and abroad. By claiming this is all about destroying Israel, you’ll lose the solidarity and the power that is greater than its individual parts combined. I know I can see it from a more objective view point, and no it is not me nor my family who are being killed, but is peace not what we are looking for? Such polarisation in this historical conflict appears inevitable, and is what drives the Israeli army, the support from their people, and the avoidance of the morality and humanitarian responsibility of actions. By demonising the other, dehumanising them and creating a totem to be held up and destroyed, then destruction of the ‘other’ will always be the goal.

Protestors head towards the embassy

As a first step, we need a fairer, less biased press in Israel and at home – people would be more aware of the realities, not able to swallow hollow justifications for unspeakable atrocities. Censorship is taking place and all Israeli domestic outlets are toeing the official line, attacking critics of the invasion, and even questioning Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza (see The Observer 11/1/09). Even at home, the BBC – through their rhetoric – accept what is going on. Interviewing Israeli military spokespeople, correspondents accept answers, allow excuses to be made, and portray the conflict as Israel defending itself.

The power of the Israeli lobby is astounding. The coverage of the march focused entirely on the acts of violence – not even asking why it happened, the build up, the probability that when 20,000 people get together, a few will be there to specifically go astray. The news failed to mention the severe bottle neck outside the embassy that led to people removing the blockades to escape, caused by the police themselves shutting off all side streets around the embassy so everyone was channelled into a small space. They failed to mention that the majority of the protesters had gone home, had been through and made their point peacefully.

Nor was there coverage of the protest itself, just on the violence – is this what news is? is the march itself not news? is what was said by the better speakers not news? is it not an outpouring of democracy, an important valve within our society that was released around the country and that should have been covered? How else can people make their voices heard? what other mechanisms are available? why was the BBC not able to broadcast what the more even-handed intelligent speakers said? Why would people rather know of the scuffles that followed rather than of the march itself? Is it fear of the Israeli lobby – it sounds stupid, but when thousands of complaints are sent to the BBC, the Guardian, any media outlet that dares criticise Israel, consequences are serious. For one, entire email systems are shut down from sheer volume, switch boards are taken over, heads are called for and voices are listened to – remember our man Andrew Sachs, whose phone call from Ross and Brand led to ‘hundreds’ of complaints, look at the response, now think thousands.

Space becomes tight

Space becomes tight

Returning to the question of violence, it is almost inevitable. History has shown it as so. But what should not be inevitable is that coverage ignores the messages of the march, the speeches given, and the reason people are in the street – why should it focus every time on a few individuals intent on causing trouble? Are the scuffles at the end of the day news-worthy enough to not look beyond them? And, if we are going to focus on the violent aspects, can we do so properly. Lets not just show people causing trouble and counting the arrested, but begin to look at why those causing trouble are doing so. Are they the same ilk as those from the Socialist Workers Party and British National Party, who came to demos simply to fight? Are they the same as the football hooligans who’s fixture list is a season of organised violence? Or the wannabe-anarchists at anti-globalisation rallies? No one is naive enough to think it came from people being soooo angry about Gaza that they had to beat up the police – If that were the case there would be a full scale riot.

but the few individuals who waited until the end, donned scarves and balaclavas, and had their ‘look at me what a big man i am’ moment did have their own identity. Judging by the pictures on the news, those in trouble were young Asian boys – likely to be Muslim – and while mob violence is undoubtedly cross cultural, the was an obvious difference, if not in actions then in cause. Politics are at play on such a basic, subconscious level that most of us who live in Britain and are not Muslim or Asian may not be aware or have already accepted and internalised as the normal state of life. The cultural war that is being waged under the guise of a war on terror has divided society and created Us vs. Them. Young Muslim and Asian men have had a torrid time since 9/11, not just from the authorities but from normal people who have internalised the war on terror, internalised the institutional suspicion. No wonder anti-establishment feelings are rife, especially when the establishment is in support of Israel – $3billion of aid was sent from the US to Israel, Europe is about to double its number of imported processed goods from Israel, as well as granting it an improved status in trade. The police are a natural target and even more so when they are protecting the Israeli embassy. I don’t condone it but I do understand it, and am ultimately not surprised by it. This invasion of Gaza has presented the latest instance of the West abandoning Palestine and therefore the Arab world, and as a result Arab solidarity is strengthening, namely against the acquiescing state and its apparatus.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into motive,  giving the perpetrators too much credit or an excuse –  are they just typical young boys and men, showing off to each other, intent on some form of destruction that endow them further to their piers or within their gang? This must be a consideration, but giving it too much weight will hide a more sinister truth, one it would be dangerous to ignore. Race riots in Yorkshire and Lancashire have shown that tension bubbles under the surface, and with the mask of the ‘war on terror’, divisions are even easier to forge. We must not let this self-perpetuating cycle – of violence leading to alienation leading to violence – continue.

More effort needs to be made at building bridges and lowering suspicions, but one of the important ways we can do so as a nation is to fully inform people – cover the march as well as the violence, let the messages of what is really going on in Palestine be heard, allow people to make up their own minds if it is right, and then be able to collectively condemn as would hopefully be the outcome. Palestine is the chess-board of the Middle East, of the entire Arab-Israeli and now Arab-West conflict, and to show we are not always on the side of the oppressor would even repair some of the damage caused by Iraq. We have the power as a nation to repair bridges, diffuse the anger of young men, and create a sense of common purpose – regardless of religion or race – and by doing so we will not only create a safer country but a safer world. There has never been a greater need for us to remove our masks: “be us one or be us million, we are all Palestinian”

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