Trafalgar Square has seen a lot of political action over the years, and on the day that Israel announced that ground troops would be sent into Gaza ‘Free Palestine’ was the cry that rang out through the crisp January air.
25,000 protesters turned up on Saturday to show solidarity with the Palestinian people who remain trapped in Gaza whilst the death toll rises to 460 – many of them women and children.
For some Londoners, sympathy for Palestinians dates beyond the blockade that began 18 months ago to the unbalanced wars which have occurred since the creation and partition of Israel in 1948. Others have been prompted by the scale of civilian death in Operation Cast Lead to take to the streets for the first time.
The march began in Embankment, went past Downing Street – where scornful shoes were thrown at number 10 – and ended in Trafalgar Square where the likes of Ken Livingstone, ex-Mayor of London, addressed the masses. He said: ‘Let’s send a message to the Israeli government: if you think you can get away with the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children you are wrong.’
He compared the plight of Palestinians to that of black South Africans under apartheid: ‘If it was any other struggle the world would be standing up to denounce it. Gordon Brown denounced apartheid year by year. So many world leaders are frightened to stand up to Israel.’
A leader of a Muslim group called for an end to trade with Israel saying: ‘It is not enough for the government to sympathise. We need action.’
The sound of many hands clapping followed every speaker and the famous Trafalgar Square lions were near invisible amidst the sea of people holding placards with slogans such as ‘Stop the Holocaust in Gaza.’ Some protesters turned up with blood-soaked dolls – a visceral reminder of the bloody scenes that are playing out in the Middle East.
Jewish comedian Alexei Sayle was amongst cultural figures, including Annie Lennox and Brian Eno, to have their turn at the microphone. He said: ‘Israel pupports to speak in our name and claims that criticism is anti-Semitic but criticism of Israel is criticism of Israel. I want to be proud one day of that country but now I am ashamed. If only Israel would turn away from violence what a wonderful day that would be. It does not act in my name. It will act in my name when it brings peace to the country.’
Sayle was not the only Jew to stand apart from the Israeli government. Rabbi Hochhauser and Rabbi Alter from Stamford Hill had walked for three hours to be there as they cannot use a vehicle on the Sabbath. As a cold day turned into a freezing dusk and the previously seething square turned into a graveyard for placards and a few stray police, the Rabbis remained, waiting for sun to set and clutching home-made banners reading ‘Zionism and Judaism are diametrically opposite’ and ‘Zionism is State-organised terrorism’.
Protests outside the Israeli Embassy in High Street Kensington will stand for as long as Operation Cast Lead continues.