London Ramadan light display switches off for Gaza

Actor Khalid Abdalla and publisher Alexandra Pringle were among guests honouring work of Medical Aid for Palestinians

Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot with actor Khalid Abdalla and others at the London vigil. Photo: Algbra X
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The Oxford Street Ramadan light display in London was switched off to commemorate the people of Gaza on Saturday.

Dozens gathered with candles around Marble Arch, for a moment of silence as the crescent moon-shaped lights on the busy shopping high street behind them were turned off.

The event was part of an iftar in solidarity with Gaza organised by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), a British charity that supports hospitals and doctors in Palestine and supplies medical aid.

British actor Khalid Abdalla was among the guests, and spoke of the important symbolism of the event.

“One of the first things that children do in the Arab world is going to buy fanous lights during Ramadan,” he told The National.

“To hold those lights for me is a symbol, in which the people in Gaza and beyond would know that we are thinking of them and that they’re not alone,” he said.

Mr Abdalla has become a prominent voice on the Palestinian issue in the UK, and spoke at a national march for Palestine held earlier in the day.

“How could I not come here? We have an unfolding genocide taking place in Gaza,” he said at the iftar event.

“I've lived my entire life in this country growing up on the words 'never again'. And here we are, under these circumstances, and it's been six months, and we're asking this stage even just for a ceasefire. Most of our politicians won't even demand that,” Abdalla said.

“I would like to see a complete change in direction. I would like first of all to see a call for an immediate ceasefire. I would like to see a ban on [arms] sales to Israel.

“I would like to see international law upheld by our politicians across the world. These are the very basic things. We are fighting for all our futures."

MAP is among a handful of international non-government organisations currently operating in Gaza. The group was established 40 years ago by a British surgeon who witnessed the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila camp in Lebanon in 1982.

Since the latest war began in October, the NGO has brought 27 lorries into Gaza, which totals about £3.2 million ($4 million) worth of aid, said Harriet Scott, MAP’s head of philanthropy.

They are one of the only international NGOs still operating in Northern Gaza, which has been cut off from aid because of the continued fighting.

“When there is a ceasefire, the work that will need to be done very quickly. Especially now, one in six children in the north are malnourished. We need to be able to mobilise as soon as possible and donations will enable us to do that,” Ms Scott said.

Support and donations from people in the UK had been “phenomenal,” Ms Scott said, with contributions coming from 160 countries.

“We’ve had support from all around the world but the UK support has been phenomenal. We’ve see a range of events from a bake sale to a town hall, to people walking for Gaza,” she said.

Its recent Stride for Gaza campaign saw UK participants walk or run 95km, which is equivalent to the distance between Gaza city and Jerusalem, and raised “over half a million pounds” for MAP in just four weeks.

Much of the fund-raising now is dedicated to getting ready to enter Gaza and operate as quickly as possible once a ceasefire comes into effect.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who attended the iftar and vigil, said there was a feeling of tremendous sadness in London about the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“You speak to Muslims and non-Muslims as well, there’s a feeling of melancholy,” he told The National.

“It's impossible not to be heart-broken, frustrated, angry about what's happening in Gaza as we speak. All of this was preventable, none of it was inevitable,” he said.

“It’s heartbreaking to think of all those lorries full of food, aid and medicine, unable to get in."

He urged the British Government to pressure Israel to bring about a ceasefire and let aid in. “It’s really important that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak uses the influence he claims to have on Netanyahu,” he said.

“We’re now embarking on the last 10 days of Ramadan, a very auspicious part of the holy month, and I can promise you, everyone is hoping for peace. Everyone’s hoping for a ceasefire.

“It's really important for us to humanise this catastrophe. These aren't just numbers, or stats. These are people."

Speaking to guests at the iftar, Mr Khan described himself as “passionately pro-Palestinian”, and said it was possible to be so while condemning the October 7 attack and calling for the release of hostages.

Though Ramadan was a time for gathering with family and loved ones, as well as a time for reflection, this year had been sombre, said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK.

“This year, the lives and the spirit of Ramadan has been diminished. Not just for Gaza, for everyone all over the world."

Dr Zomlot’s direct families have been killed in the war by Israeli air strikes.

“Two million people in Gaza marked this holy month on the Israel siege and bombardment. They have no shelter, no water, no basic services," he said.

“They are facing famine, as you all know, imposed on them. A man-made, an Israeli-made famine, with a clear intent to eradicate the Palestinian people had to extinguish our light.

“They see little chance that this nightmare will come to an end anytime."

Dr Zomlot said the UK had an “obligation” to impose an arms embargo on Israel and called for actions on all Israeli settlers. “There’s no such thing as a good settler and a bad settler.”

Despite the crisis in Gaza, many in the UK were hesitant to speak out against the war, said Nizam Uddin OBE, chief strategy officer at Algbra, the sharia-compliant FinTech company that sponsors the Ramadan lights on Oxford Street.

“The litmus test I've always asked my friends is would you call for a ceasefire on LinkedIn. And the chances are no, because they're all slightly worried in some way, shape, or form. That asks deeper questions,” he said.

Alexandra Pringle, former editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury publishing, described her first trip to Palestine 15 years ago, and how it compelled her to start publishing the works of Palestinian authors.

“It was the most profound and moving experience of my life, and nothing was ever the same again after I had been there that first time. It was not just witnessing the terrible degradation and brutality,” she said.

“It was also witnessing the incredible beauty of this place, the deep sensitivity, the wonderful culture, the bravery."

Ms Pringle hoped the marches for Palestine in London could serve as a message of hope from the UK.

“One of things I have felt going on the marches, is that we do care and we are here and we are here for everyone,” she said.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and founder of US Middle East Project, spoke of hope for the Palestinian issue before the lights were turned off.

“It’s hard to be hopeful, but I am hopeful that a zeitgeist is shifting,” he said.

“What we’ve seen in the streets of London - and elsewhere in the world - is the disbelief that many in this country feel when our government has still not taken a decision to stop sending arms," he said.

"I believe that the call of not in my name from Jewish people is growing, and that gives me hope that Jews and Muslims and others can stand together," he said.

Updated: April 02, 2024, 2:33 PM