Nakba Day: 15,000 rally in UK to demand end to Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine, justice for Shireen Abu Akleh
The UK demonstration was held one day before the 74th annual Nakba Day on 15 May, which commemorates the 750,000 Palestinians expelled with the Israeli state's 1948 creation.
It comes as Israeli forces shot dead veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, as she covered an Israeli security raid in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday before brutally assaulting mourners at her funeral on Friday.
"Let us tell Shireen that her last report from the occupied territories and her funeral scene – as you all have seen – was the most influential and will continue to be the most visible and the most etched in our memory," Palestinian Forum in Britain (PFB) Chair Zaher Birawi said in a speech.
"You Shireen, your blood was a great curse on the occupation – a great curse on the occupation, its racist and terrorist army and the hypocrisy capitals in the West.
"Yes, dear friends and comrades, it was the most influential report, simply because she wrote it with her precious blood that she gave for the homeland and its capital, Jerusalem.
"Rest in peace Shireen. Rest in peace Shireen as your blood will shorten the way to the liberated Jerusalem and to the liberated Palestine."
Protesters chanted for justice for the celebrated Al Jazeera correspondent and held placards showcasing her photograph.
"She was the voice of Palestine – her voice resonated in our ears in the Second Intifada, when I grew up," said Palestinian university lecturer Dima Srouji, 31, referring to a major uprising against Israel from 2000 to 2005.
"She made us feel heard. I think, at the time, it was worse to be silenced than to die and it still feels that way sometimes.
"Now what's happening is that we are both silenced and dying at the same time. And the problem with Shireen's death is that it incorporates both things," the protester said while holding a banner featuring Palestinian imagery and Abu Akleh's face alongside text that read: "Her voice will forever resonate."
Srouji and others from the master's programme in city design at London's Royal College of Art created the banner to be brought to Saturday's protest.
Originally made before Abu Akleh was killed on Wednesday, it was then edited to include a tribute to her.
"We stayed up for the last two days finishing it," Srouji said, adding that a second banner reading, "She was assassinated" was also created.
Protesters first gathered outside BBC headquarters in Portland Place where speakers from the Green Party, National Education Union, Jewish Socialists' Group and anti-poverty NGO War on Want addressed the crowd from around 12:25pm.
Chants of "One, two, three, four, occupation no more" and "Free, free Palestine" could be heard in the British capital.
The Nakba (Arabic for "catastrophe") commemoration rally was organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the PFB, Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA), the Muslim Association of Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition.
The national demonstration in London aimed to help put a stop to Israel's ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Before the protest started, FOA supporters held printed press vests, much like the one Shireen was wearing when she was killed.
There were 55 vests in total – one for each journalist killed by the Israeli military since the year 2000, according to a Palestinian Journalists Syndicate count.
"[It's] so symbolic to let people see visually how many journalists have been killed by Israel," FOA communications and engagement officer Charlotte Kelsted, 27, said.
"I think that's a really important way to make people realise the extent of what's going on there."
After protesters listened to opening speeches, Palestinians carrying keys symbolising their determination to return to the homes Israel stole from them led a march to Downing Street, where Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak live.
Among the keyholders was Jeanine Hourani, 28, an organiser and writer who addressed the rally from a stage set up in Whitehall. Speeches carried on there until around 4pm.
"My grandfather's from a village called Hittin and Hittin was completely erased in 1948," Hourani told The New Arab.
"We went back there in 2018 and there was nothing. Like, it was as if a village had never been there.
"It was really hard to reconcile what I saw with the stories my grandfather had told me."
The area where Hittin once stood was seized by and incorporated into Israel.
Hourani said the Nakba is an ongoing process, with Palestinians today still threatened with dispossession.
In Masafer Yatta, an area near the West Bank city of Hebron, more than 1,000 Palestinians now face expulsion following an Israeli Supreme Court decision earlier this month.
Tel Aviv knocked around 20 homes, barns and other structures down there on Wednesday, official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
While Saturday's protest focused on ending Israeli abuses, several speakers also criticised Britain's leaders.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana said demonstrators were sending a "message to the residents of Downing Street" that "your silence is complicity, and we will not let you forget that".
It comes as the UK government on Tuesday announced it aims to pass a law to "prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion".
Many consider this move an attempt to clamp down on boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, efforts against Israel over its abuses of the Palestinian people, which Amnesty International in February found amounted to apartheid.
Labour MP and former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: "The UK government brought forward this week their proposals to legislate against the ability for us to make our protests effective."
He added that he would oppose the bill, urging Labour to follow suit.
In response to a request for comment, a UK government spokesperson said: "The scenes in Jerusalem on Friday at the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh were deeply disturbing. We call for urgent steps to de-escalate tensions and for restraint in the use of force."
They added that the government was "deeply saddened to hear about the tragic death" of the "veteran Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist", calling for a "thorough investigation".
"The work of journalists across the globe is vital. They must be protected to carry out their work and defend media freedom," the spokesperson said.
The New Arab has contacted the Conservative and Labour parties for comment.