Isolated and overwhelmed: Londoners gather in hope for peace in Gaza

People seeking safe space to discuss Palestinian issue met on Thursday, as UK leaders call for tolerance and unity

Graduate Lilia, centre, and student Tamaa, right, were among those gathered at the Mosaic Rooms to talk openly about the Gaza situation. Lemma Shehadi / The National
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Across London, people are coming together to exchange thoughts and emotions on the Israeli-Gaza war, and trying to defuse community tension.

At the Mosaic Rooms gallery, people gathered for tea and food, and watched films from the Palestine Film Institute.

The event was part of a group screening "We Are Many" in support of Palestine, which also took place at three other venues in Central and East London.

Although demonstrations have taken place weekly since the war began, these events on Thursday were aimed at bringing together people who were feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the conflict.

Some held hands and hugged, while others appeared tired and gaunt.

“I wanted to be with people from my community, and not feel alone,” said Merah Rayan, a Syrian-born Palestinian who runs a digital marketing company in London.

Since the war began on October 7, she has been on her phone, scrolling at images of the war.

“We’re all on our phones and suffering alone right now,” Ms Rayan told The National.

Ms Rayan’s family were refugees to Syria, and she was again displaced by the civil war that broke out there in 2011. Now living in London, she carries the weight of statelessness.

“As a stateless Palestinian, everywhere I go my situation is particular to me,” she said.

She fears that this new cycle of violence means she may never experience peace in her lifetime: “I’m losing hope, like I’ll never be out of this."

Community tension in the UK has been elevated by the Israel-Gaza war.

King Charles urged “civility and tolerance amid fractious times” in a landmark speech on Wednesday, and called on people to be “passionate but not pugnacious” in their debates about the conflict.

This week the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, stood outside his home, Lambeth Palace, with fellow British faith leaders Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg to call for unity between communities.

Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 killed about 1,300 Israelis, and up to 200 remain as hostages in Gaza.

More than 3,800 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing Israeli air strikes, with thousands more injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israel has cut Gaza’s electricity and most of its water supply. Twenty humanitarian aid trucks will enter Gaza from Egypt on Friday in the first aid delivery that Israel has agreed to since the war began.

This will not be enough to sustain Gaza's 2.3 million people.

The extent of the Israeli government’s assault, and a possible ground invasion, has prompted members of the UK’s British Jewish community to speak out against the war.

Hundreds of British Jews gathered at Parliament Square on Thursday, condemning Israel's actions and urging the British government to call for a ceasefire.

“We will not let our grief be weaponised to justify genocide,” said Na’amod, a UK-based campaign group that organised the protest.

With the Mosaic Rooms acting as "safe space", some people expressed their anger at the war, and their frustration at the British government’s response – which has seen cross-party support for Israel’s “right to self defence".

“I came to share a space with people who are sharing a lot of sorrow and rage,” said Kosmik, an Egyptian-born Palestinian now living in London.

Kosmik’s grandmother was born in Gaza and her family were displaced by the Nakba in 1948.

But growing up, he did not hear stories of displacement, which came when Israel was created and Palestinians were driven from their homes.

“My parents and grandparents didn’t want to talk about it, it was too painful,” Kosmik recalled.

It was only when their grandmother developed dementia that she started to talk about her childhood home in Gaza, and the family’s journey.

Many feel that voices expressing support for Palestinians in Gaza are not welcome.

They talk of Home Secretary Suella Braverman's advice to police that waving the Palestinian flag might not be considered "legitimate" at anti-Israel demonstrations.

Then, on Thursday, Communities Secretary Michael Gove announced that a bill to stop councils and local authorities from engaging in boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against other countries will be tabled for a third reading next week.

The bill is largely perceived to be aimed at the BDS movement against Israel, and some Conservatives have warned the move could exacerbate community tension.

Tamaa Alshamaa, a university student, said she came to the Mosaic Rooms seeking a “safe space” to discuss the Palestinian issue.

Ms Alshamaa sensed tension at her university about how to speak of the Israeli-Gaza war.

“I don’t watch my language, but I’ve noticed that others do,” she said, referring to the teachers on her course.

“There’s an element of if you support Palestine, then you’re supporting Hamas. And that’s not true."

Recent graduate Lilia echoed these concerns: “Even expressing my opinion on Palestine doesn’t feel safe."

Lilia went along after seeing an announcement for Thursday evening's event on Instagram.

“I thought it would be a safe space," she said. "A lot of people that I know don’t follow what’s going in Palestine. It’s nice to be surrounded by people who do."

Updated: October 20, 2023, 2:32 PM