Up to 15,000 people took to the streets of London on Saturday to oppose the Balfour Declaration, just days after British Prime Minister Theresa May held a celebratory dinner to mark the centenary of the controversial document.
The march, organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, saw floods of protesters march from outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, through Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and up to Parliament Square in the heart of Britain’s democracy.
The Balfour Declaration, written by Britain’s then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour on November 2, 1917, was a defining document in which the British government stated its support for the establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine.
Mrs May, who welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to London to her dinner on Thursday, has consistently said she would commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the declaration with “pride”.
But the message from the Pro-Palestinian protestors on Saturday was clear. “Theresa May, shame on you,” was written on placards waved by the crowds. “She’s proud to celebrate the Balfour Declaration… is she proud to celebrate ethnic cleansing? Apartheid? And the oppression of human rights?” Rajab Shamlakh, from the Association of the Palestinian Community in the UK, asked the crowd in one of the many speeches at the event. “This government should feel shame, not pride,” he continued.
Other banners held at the march included “100 years of injustice”, “Free Palestine” and “Israel is a terror state”.
Colin from Liverpool told The National he travelled down to London to attend the protest, together with 30 other members of the "Liverpool Friends of Palestine" group.
“I’m very ashamed of the British government,” he said. “They signed that declaration in 1917 with no care whatsoever for the indigenous people. It is very important that British people come out and show solidarity with the Palestinians.”
The protest was delayed by almost an hour as pro-Israeli demonstrators attempted to block the streets. They ended up marching ahead of the pro-Palestinian protest all the way to Westminster, holding signs which lambasted the “anti-semitic rally”.
But Glyn Secker, from campaign group Jews for Justice for Palestinians, told the crowd: “These criticisms are not and cannot be anti-Semitic – they are to assert basic human and Jewish values.”
Describing Palestine as “the world’s biggest prison” and a “psychological torture chamber”, Mr Secker took direct aim at the Israeli leadership, saying: “Netanyahu you do not speak for me, nor for hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world who identify with your victims.”
Other speakers at the rally included representatives from trade unions, film director Ken Loach, SNP politician John Nicolson and Palestinian politician Dr Mustafa Barghouti.
A video of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, was also played to the crowd, which burst into energetic chants of “Ohh, Jeremy Corbyn” – one of the more memorable refrains from this year's general election campaign.
Speakers and attendees expressed outrage at the steady loss of Palestinian land to Israeli settlers, with maps handed out at the event showing the dramatic reduction in Palestinian-controlled territory since 1917. “Palestinians only have 22% of their land left, which is being eroded daily,” said Mr Nickleson said. “That’s a pitifully small amount of land.”
They also urged Theresa May’s government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration. “She should apologise for this crime,” another protester, Hassan, told The National. “She has lost touch with the British people, and what we want.”
Ismail Patel, founder of Friends of Al-Aqsa, said the message to the government from Saturday’s march was clear.
“First and foremost, apologise for the Balfour Declaration,” he said. “Secondly, recognise the state of Palestine today. Third, continue with BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] until Palestine is free.
“My friends, take this message home and keep working until Palestine is free,” he added, to rapturous chants of “free, free Palestine”.