Joe Biden has no influence at all on Hamas, but quite a bit on Israel. It follows that he might have the political muscle to force a ceasefire on the latter. So any such development might well be one-sided, with Hamas continuing to fire rockets into Israel. Even if didn’t, it would be able to regroup, recover – and plan further bloody massacres like those of October 7.
Some of those organising Saturday’s pro-Palestinian march in London have links to Hamas and others don’t. Some of those who will join it support Hamas and others won’t – the latter representing the majority, I believe, though there’s no way of knowing. But whatever their take, the march’s proclaimed goal would be useful to Hamas. How can those marching help to bring it about?
After all, Saturday’s event will not move Israel’s Government. Nor America’s. Nor ours: the Government is relatively immune from Islamist and far left constituency pressure; and Conservative backbenchers are mostly supportive of Israel. Ministers also have the support of the Opposition – so far.
And it is here that the march’s organisers, and those who support the Palestinian cause, believe they have an opportunity. If they can mobilise the party’s emphatic pro-Palestine sympathies, spook enough Labour backbenchers, force votes in the Commons, compel more front-bench resignations and threaten Labour with a revived Respect, they may be able to compel Sir Keir Starmer to change course.
Were that to happen, Rishi Sunak would no longer command a consensus, and the terms of political trade would consequently change. Pressure on the Government to back a ceasefire would mount. My purpose is not to weigh the likelihood or otherwise of such developments, but to think through the likely consequence of the march organisers’ aim on the protests themselves, both authorised and unauthorised.
The activists must tighten the squeeze on Labour MPs, both by targeted action, of which the mass picketing of Wes Streeting’s office was an example, and show in broader terms that they control the streets. Much of this activity has nothing to do with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
For example, Sisters Uncut organised the sit-ins at Liverpool Street Station and others. Free Palestine Coalition stopped traffic in Oxford Street. (Football supporters should note that it includes Black Lives Matter.) It isn’t clear who threw mice into a MacDonalds in Birmingham. But whoever it was helped to illustrate a point: that the logic of the protests is to get noisier and nastier.
Which takes us to Saturday’s march. Its effect on the Armistice Day commemoration in Whitehall is a red herring. The march won’t pass the Cenotaph and was never intended to. But the juxtaposition of the two is likely to have had an impact on public opinion. To many, the ceremonies and the protesters are from two different Britains.
The first remember and honour our national story. The second, all too often, do not. The story of Jim Henderson, the former serviceman who was punched and kicked by protesters while selling poppies in Edinburgh, exemplifies the difference. What happens at Remembrance commemorations up and down the country may help to show whether that incident was the shape of things to come.
Either way, a fundamental of public order is that the authorities uphold it without fear or favour. In the Times this morning, Suella Braverman gives Ministerial voice to the view, which she is scarcely alone in holding, that the police aren’t doing so. “Unfortunately, there is a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters,” she writes.
“Right-wing and nationalist protesters who engage in aggression are rightly met with a stern response yet pro-Palestinian mobs displaying almost identical behaviour are largely ignored, even when clearly breaking the law.” Leave aside for a moment some of the Home Secretary’s other remarks and her political ambitions, stick with her words, and ask: is she right?
The police have a hazardous job to do at the best of times. And some of the criticisms made of them are unfair: for example, police officers may miss marchers who clothes display pictures of Hamas paragliders. Extremist protestors move quickly; arrests, prosecutions and convictions take time (though, by the way, the women in question were eventually arrested).
Nonetheless, Braverman has a point. The police aren’t shy of kettling football fans, if necessary, and using snatch squads to make arrests. They were aggressive enough, and then some, at the Sarah Everard vigil. The Met seems to be policing the pro-Palestine marches very differently – filming first (or registering offences) and arresting afterwards.
It may be that Sir Mark Rowley, the Met Commissioner, thinks he hasn’t the numbers: that a thousand officers or so can’t properly police a crowd of several hundred thousand. That he thinks the Home Secretary is a lightweight. And that he expects both her and Rishi Sunak, who he met yesterday, to be out of office very shortly, and thus feels little incentive to do what they want him to do.
If so, the implications are alarming – both for the common front which politicians and police should show when public order is concerned and, even more, for policing itself. It’s reasonable to believe both that the protestors have a right to march, and that they don’t have the right to march wherever they like, whenever they like.
That the police should maintain law and order without fear or favour, and restrict marches if necessary, should be non-negotiable absolutes in a functioning democracy. This morning, Braverman is flying solo, Sunak is trying to hold the ring, Sir Keir is keeping his head down, Sadiq Khan is manoeuvering – and Sir Mark has put his future in the hands of Saturday’s march organisers.
If the event turns out to be disorderly, he will surely have to go. Should it be taking place at all? The Prime Minister has claimed that its timing is “disrespectful”. This is a bit wide of the mark. For on the one hand, it seems right for people to be able to demonstrate, regardless of the date, as long as solemn commemorations aren’t disrupted.
On the other, though, it doesn’t seem fair for them to be able to march through parts of central London every single Saturday, so hampering the ordinary life and business of bits of the city. That many British Jews feel unsafe going into the city on Saturdays must also be taken into consideration.
The least bad solution would be for this weekend’s protest to be a rally (and for the example to be followed outside London). Let the protesters gather in one place, have their event, and disperse. No march. The Campaign against AntiSemitism has called for military aid for the authorities if necessary. I’m reluctant to believe that the Met can’t police a rally properly if it puts its mind to it.
As I write, the march is going ahead. If the prospect of far right counter-protests hardens, Sir Mark will presumably ban all marches in London this weekend. The hard left and the Islamists would then ask why the far right should shut them down. The far right would complain of double standards. The rest of us want to live in a civilised country, not Babylon Berlin.