A few short weeks ago, it could be reluctantly conceded that those who claimed the issue of Palestine could be “managed” or “contained” may have appeared convincing. Even though last year more Palestinians in the occupied West Bank had been killed since 2005 and more than two million Gazans continued to lead difficult lives under a punishing Israeli blockade, in recent years, their plight generally sparked protests among only committed activists and the Palestinian diaspora.
This has changed radically since the punishing Israeli military response to Hamas’s attack and its murder and abduction of more than 1,400 people on October 7. This weekend, in countries as far apart as India, the UK and the US, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the long-running conflict.
In London alone, police expected about 10,000 to march through the British capital on Saturday, although the actual number of protesters was reportedly 10 times higher. In Chicago, thousands of protesters gathered in the heart of the city for a second consecutive weekend, and in New York City, police arrested at least 200 people during a protest at Grand Central Station on Friday to demand a ceasefire. Several Jewish organisations and many individual Jews have also joined the protests, taking a public stand against the policies and tactics of the Israeli government.
The size, spread and composition of the protests show that the latest violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has galvanised international public opinion in a way not seen since the last Israel-Gaza war in 2014. The numbers of people marching for a ceasefire and to express solidarity with Palestinians suggest that the relentless bombing of Gaza’s civilian population is motivating people far beyond the typical activist base. This will have consequences for domestic politics in several countries, as leaders and politicians face calls to take a stand on Palestinian rights.
We have seen such protests over Palestine before, of course, but this time they have taken place as anti-war demonstrations erupt in Israel too. On Saturday, crowds gathered in Tel Aviv and outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea to demand a ceasefire. A similar demonstration took place outside the Jerusalem home of Economy Minister Nir Barkat. Such domestic protests, which follow scenes of government ministers being harangued by angry Israelis, are a physical manifestation of the many fault lines running through Israeli society.
Yesterday, the Health Ministry in Gaza said more than 8,000 people, including nearly 3,600 children, have been killed in the enclave to date. Thousands of people around the world, many of whom feel helpless in the face of such carnage, want to make their voices heard. They also want their leaders to know that they are opposed to the unjust punishment being meted out to Palestinians who had no say in the cruel and wanton violence inflicted by Hamas upon Israeli civilians more than three weeks ago.
We don’t know how or when this conflict will end. No-one does. But the public protests and international anger seen simultaneously on several continents at the weekend prove that the conflict has again been propelled to the top of the agenda in a way that has – perhaps permanently – shattered the idea of sidelining the Palestinian issue. A new way forward will have to be found because the failure of the preceding policies – and an abandonment of peace efforts for Palestinians – has been exposed. Friday’s call, through The National’s pages, by nine veteran Arab statesmen for a return to the Arab Peace Initiative is one route to end the spiral of bloodshed and return to meaningful diplomacy.
The global protests are also proof of what most political leaders outside the region now understand – there is no going back. The human tragedy of the conflict is one that motivates and enrages people far removed from the death and destruction. All these voices should be heard.