December 05, 2023
The mass demonstrations for Palestine call for a more just world for all
Insight by Thomas Aureliani, research fellow
“Free free Palestine! Free free Palestine!”, shouts a young activist at the Milan march organized on 11 November 2023 in support of the Palestinian people. Sitting on the shoulders of a man, perhaps her father, she dictates the pace of dozens of demonstrators who follow her. She has a microscopic megaphone in her hand, but she perfectly articulates the key slogan of the mass demonstrations that are taking place all over the world following the escalation of violence in the Occupied Territories by Israel after 7 October 2023, the day of the unexpected and violent attack by Hamas that caused 1,200 victims and the capture of 220 Israeli hostages.
Due to the indiscriminate bombing of the population and civilian infrastructure of Gaza by Israel, 14,800 Palestinian civilians have been killed, about 6,000 of whom are children, 1,7 million are displaced and 46,000 housing units in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed while 2,3 million people are homeless, at the time of writing. Nothing has been spared from the ultra-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu who, as the protesters say, is revealing to the world his real intentions: to annihilate the Palestinian people and carry out the initial project of the Zionist movement, that is, to create a great de-Arabized Israel (see on this subject the works of Ilan Pappé, “The Biggest Prison on Earth. A History of the Occupied Territories”, Oneworld Publications, 2017, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”, Oneworld Publications, 2006).
The wave of death and repression by the Israeli government (that also manifested itself in the West Bank with hundreds of arrests and the complicity of settlers who increased the pressure on Palestinians with killings and violence), as well as the devastating images that come from the few Palestinian journalists still alive in Gaza (from 7 October to 26 November 57 journalists died, including 50 Palestinians, 4 Israelis and 3 Lebanese) are pushing thousands of protesters into the streets around the world. And not only people and organizations in solidarity with the historic Palestinian cause but also citizens with no history of militancy for the liberation of the Occupied Territories. Faced with the double standard of the Western media and governments that avoid acknowledging the responsibilities of the Israeli government, a large transnational protest movement is developing, the likes of which has never been seen in recent decades, especially in Europe and the United States. Perhaps only the mobilization against the Iraq war in 2003 brought so many people into the streets.
From London to Washington, from Rome to Brussels, from Paris to Berlin, from New York to Madrid, Western protests are demonstrating a profound rupture between the actions of national governments (which have immediately shown practically unconditional support for Israel, with some exceptions) and a substantial part of European and North American public opinion: schools and universities occupied calling for a ceasefire and the suspension of relations with Israeli institutions in Occupied Territories and giving impetus to petitions (for example the initiative of Italian academics who collected over 4 thousand signatures); protest sit-ins in front of consulates and embassies; dock workers blocking ships with weapons headed to Israel; football fans in stadiums singing solidarity chants and displaying Palestinian flags; hundreds of information events on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and, indeed, many street demonstrations.
In Italy, a huge Palestinian flag was unfurled from the iconic Tower of Pisa. The same was done at the University of Berkeley, in the United States, while in Cambridge the Palestinian flag was flown over King's College Chapel. These protests bring together young and old generations of civil rights activists; student groups; labor movements; activists from the most politically active sectors but also families with children in solidarity, atheists, Christians, Muslims and Jews united to call for an immediate ceasefire and a Palestine free of Israeli occupation. The vibrant protests in Washington by anti-Zionist American Jews who followed the slogan "Not in our name" and the occupation of Capitol Hill give a measure of what is happening. In fact, various pacifist Jewish communities are condemning the actions of the Israeli government and, recalling the tragedy of the Holocaust, reiterating "Never again for anyone!”.
Analyzing the protests from a numerical point of view - both in terms of the quantity of protests and the numbers of protesters - the extent of this wave of mobilization appears clear. An interesting study by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-governmental analysis center that processes data on protests, counted at least 3,700 demonstrations in support of Palestine out of 4,200 global protests in the first three weeks of the conflict alone. In the first ten days of Israeli attacks on Gaza, according to a mapping by Al Jazeera, demonstrations took place in various cities around the world such as Adelaide, Algiers, Amman, Athens, Auckland, Baghdad, Barcelona, Beirut, Berlin, Boston, Braband, Brasilia, Brisbane, Cairo, Calgary, Cambridge, Canberra, Cape Town, Caracas, Colombo, Copenhagen, Dallas, Damascus, Dearborn, Delhi, Dhaka, Doha, Diyarbakir, Dublin, Edinburgh, Edmonton, Geneva, Glasgow, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Kargil, Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore, London, Los Angeles, Lucknow, Male, Manama, Manchester, Marawi City, Melbourne, Mexico City, Milan, Mississauga, Montreal, Mumbai, Nablus, Naples, New York City, Paris, Pittsburgh, Portland, Pune, Rabat, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Sanaa, Santiago, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Surakarta, Sydney, Tehran, The Hague, Thiruvananthapuram, Tokyo, Tucson, Turin, Vancouver, Washington DC.
In the latter, the largest demonstration in support of the Palestinian people in the history of the United States took place on 4 November 2023, with over 300 thousand people pouring into the streets of the US capital, while London, on 11 November 2023, saw similarly at least 300,000 parading through the center, although the organizers speak of nearly a million people. The following Saturday, November 18th, at least 100 demonstrations were held simultaneously across the United Kingdom. It is interesting to note the main demands through the slogans, banners and billboards that have colored the streets all over the world black, red, white and green. Through the protest performances and the banners used it is possible to understand how the activists frame what is happening. Firstly, there is a general agreement that the demonstrations are pressing for two main objectives, one conjunctural - i.e. an immediate ceasefire and an end to the bombing of Gaza - and one structural linked to a historical demand of the Palestinian people: the end of the occupation by Israel and the liberation of Palestine.
Also, the protesters insist on the need to change the vocabulary, replacing the term "war" - which presupposes a more or less equal clash between the actors in the conflict - with concepts that better represent reality according to their interpretative frame, i.e. "genocide", “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing”. In fact, especially the Western media and governments tend to refer to what happened from 7 October onwards as a "war between Israel and Hamas" even when in fact the Israeli military action was mainly concentrated on civilians’ objectives who had little to do with the proclaimed objective of putting down the Hamas group. As underlined by the Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres, who was verbally attacked by Western politicians and commentators, the Hamas attack did not occur in a vacuum and the issue must be analyzed with historical depth. For example, highlighting the figures from the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs: between 1 January 2008 and 6 October 2023 (the day before the attack by the Islamist group) the Palestinian victims of the conflict were 6,417 while the Israeli ones were 308, while the Palestinians displaced in Gaza and the West Bank from 2008 to 2022 were 742 thousand, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
Even taking these figures into account, it is difficult not to talk about ethnic cleansing, as many scholars, including Israeli ones already do.
Ilan Pappé has been saying it for years, clearly framing in these terms what has happened in the past and is currently happening to the Palestinian population (Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications, 2006).
The fear of an intensification of the forced displacement process from their territories was well highlighted by the UN special rapporteur for the Occupied Territories Francesca Albanese, who stated: “Palestinians have no safe zone anywhere in Gaza, with Israel having imposed a “complete siege” on the tiny enclave, with water, food, fuel and electricity unlawfully cut off”.
The Israeli Ministry of Intelligence itself, through a secret document published by the Jewish site Mekomit and translated into English on the Wikileaks Twitter profile, proposes and advises the government to implement in view of "the expulsion of the Palestinians from Gaza towards the north of Sinai, in Egypt”, while Netanyahu openly states that Israel will retain “overall security responsibility” over Gaza “for an indefinite period”.
Also for these reasons, the prospect of an "asymmetric peace" does not seem to characterize the framework of demonstrations for Palestine today. Palestinian and non-Palestinian citizens are demanding justice and the end of the Israeli colonial regime, they are not demanding peace. Or rather, they put the freedom of Palestine before the achievement of a lasting and sincere peace.
It's not that the protesters lack pacifist sentiments (in fact, their outright rejection of war is evident). Rather, their stance stems from a profound awareness that achieving peace under such conditions would only perpetuate the ongoing state of oppression that Palestinians have endured for far too many years.
What various organized groups close to the cause are trying to do is to connect the Palestinian issue to a broader struggle against colonialism, the oppression of peoples and the extractivist global capitalism of the great powers, especially Western ones. All sides of the same coin.
This is why ecological groups, composed mainly of young people, are aligned with the Palestinian people: in addition to human rights violations and social injustice, the war on the Palestinian people has exacerbated environmental injustices in the Occupied Territories. Resources plundered, lands stolen or at best managed in an authoritarian and unequal manner by the occupying power. Inaccessible or contaminated water in Gaza: the images of children forced to drink rainwater or salty sea water, which is also polluted, are heartbreaking.
Through creative performances such as placards and red hands painted as if bloody, several protesters blame the political leaders of the United States and the European Union accused of being bloodstained accomplices to the ongoing massacre.
This sentiment was reinforced after the voting procedures on October 20, 2023, during the UN General Assembly session that aimed for an immediate ceasefire. The resolution passed with 45 abstentions, notably including Italy, Germany, and Great Britain, alongside 14 opposing votes, among them the United States and, unsurprisingly, Israel.
What is interesting to underline is that what is at stake in this conflict between the protesters and governments does not seem to be just a ceasefire and an end to hostilities, but also and above all a different idea of the world.
A more just and decolonized world, diametrically opposed to the one built by Western global powers, accused of adopting a double moral standard in the evaluation of the great facts of contemporary history and an extractivist posture towards oppressed, marginalized and, as in the case of the Palestinians, dehumanized people.
As the Global Justice Movement took form in Seattle in 1999, activists rallied for a more egalitarian world, advocating for environmental preservation, women's rights, and peace. They levied substantial criticism against capitalist globalization, targeting international economic institutions and G8 governments, all of which were accused of lacking democratic processes and transparency in their decision-making.
The motto was another world is possible, a world in which the experiences of mobilization from below and from places defined as the "Global South" could have a decisive weight.
The mass protests in support of Palestine today demonstrate the relevance of that discourse and seem to represent a new face of that global movement.
In fact, the demands of the Palestinian people seem to become a symbol of a renewed desire to live in a more just society, in which people can peacefully self-determine by claiming their right to a dignified existence. After all, this is what this great mass mobilization in solidarity with the Palestinian people is calling for.