Brendan Cox takes new peace movement onto London's streets

Campaigners urge communities not to let tensions from Israel-Gaza threaten coexistence in the UK

People attend a Humanity Not Hatred Vigil in Westminster, central London. PA
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A “march for humanity” commemorating the loss of civilians on all sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict will take place in London.

Communities are coming together amid heightened tensions, emphasising empathy over politics.

“We want to give voice to the mass majority of people whose viewpoints may differ but who share a sense of loss for the civilians killed on both sides,” Brendan Cox, the campaigner who made the initial call for march, told The National.

Mr Cox has campaigned for community cohesion since his wife, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016 by a far-right extremist a week before the Brexit referendum.

A conflict in the Middle East, he added, should not threaten coexistence in the UK.

“We know that people of different faiths can live together in our country,” he said. “While we might not agree on everything, we can agree on humanity and our rejection of hatred.”

Grieving family members whose loved ones have been killed in the conflict will lead the vigil this weekend “for all those suffering” because of the most recent outbreak of fighting.

They will gather outside Downing Street at 3pm on Sunday to “speak out against both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate”, organisers said.

The event, called Building Bridges, Together for Humanity, will see faith leaders and politicians join families “in the first mass event of its kind” since Hamas militants entered Israel on October 7.

Thousands of lanterns are expected to be lit to bring people together “in shared grief for all those who have been lost”.

Speakers will include London-based Israeli Magen Inon – whose parents were both killed by Hamas on October 7, Palestinian peace activist Hamze Awawde and Mr Cox, who cofounded the Together coalition which is helping to organise the event.

He described the vigil as “just the beginning”, with more events planned across the UK on December 13, adding that people are “crying out for this kind of opportunity”.

He said the vigil is intended as a response to “the loudest and most extreme voices” which have drowned out the vast majority of the public.

“We know communities in the UK live alongside each other very well and what we don’t want to do is import the dynamics of the conflict in Israel and Palestine,” he told PA.

“People want to be able to express their grief and their pain for what they are seeing, but they don’t want to do that while taking a side or, even if they have, they don’t want to do it in such a way which excludes others.”

National marches in support of Palestine, and vigils for those killed and kidnapped in Israel have been taking place weekly since October 7. There has been a 14-fold increase in anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Muslim incidents have tripled as a result of a fallout from the war.

Tens of thousands marched on Sunday in a rally against anti-Semitism outside the Royal Courts of Justice, where some people also held banners calling for peace. Far-right leader Tommy Robinson tried to attend the march but was escorted away by police.

Yet the government's attempts to contain community tensions have been described as divisive. Former home secretary Suella Braverman had called the pro-Palestinian demonstrations “hate marches” and was sacked from her position after accusing the Met police of bias.

This week’s march will call out hatred from all sides, and further regional events take place in the following weeks. “It sends out the right message that hatred, regardless of who it is directed at, can and should be tackled by everyone,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, chairman of Muslims Against Anti-Semitism.

He warned that tensions from the Israel-Gaza war could “politicise hatred” in the UK. “It’s a really important rally because it’s apolitical,” Mr Nuseibeh told The National.

“It is absolutely crucial to show that everyone on the right and left stands together against hatred, and gives reassurances to everyone that there is unity,” he said.

The march may take momentum from the continuing truce, which has seen the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian detainees.

“Feelings are running high right now and there’s a lot of mistrust that has been generated. I hope that Palestinians and Muslims will attend the event,” he added.

“Everybody is looking for hope, where they don’t have to chose sides or join angry protests,” said Danielle Bett, communications director of Yachad, a UK British-Jewish charity that is also involved in the upcoming march.

Speaker Mr Awawde lives in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. “The pain and suffering this war has unleashed is unimaginable,” he told PA.

“In the West Bank, where my immediate family live, we are deeply traumatised by the current and continuing situation.

“Just last week my cousin was shot in the leg in the West Bank town of Dura. But if anyone thinks stoking anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred is the best response, you are wrong. We can only solve this conflict in the long term if we stop dehumanising each other.”

Mr Cox and other co-organisers held a smaller, inaugural vigil in November, with speeches from MPs and faith leaders from different communities.

“Thank you for being brave and choosing not to pick a side, but instead be on the side of humanity,” said Layla Moran, the first MP of Palestinian descent, at the vigil.

Fellow speaker Mr Inon said the first vigil had filled him with “hope”. “There is much more work to do for us to achieve peace. All of you coming today fills me with hope,” he said.

But the movement’s inception was fragile. The November event was not advertised on social media for security reasons, and some people in the audience feared an imbalance in the communities that were present.

That will change for this weekend's march which has been publicly announced, organisers have said.

Alan Greenberg, a London resident who attended the November inaugural vigil, described the past few weeks as “difficult.”

“We find ourselves in a time when there’s a lot of polarisation. It’s the first opportunity I’ve seen to show support for a solution and not a side,” he told The National.

The Hamas attack on October 7 was “shocking to the core” but he was also concerned about the loss of civilian life in Gaza.

“To see a horrific massacre in Israel, I’m still not full over the shock. The way in which things have panned out since then, and to see the loss of civilian life from the response has been difficult too,” he added.

Abraham Dien, a filmmaker and recent graduate, said the vigil was the first event linked to the conflict that he had attended.

“As a Jewish person, its very conflicting. I’ve been debating whether or not to go to the marches for Palestine. I have decided against going, but this [event] was the right one for me,” he told The National.

While people can unite against hatred in the UK, bringing people to talk about the conflict itself was another important challenge.

“At the moment it’s so hard to bring Jews and Palestinians in the UK together,” said Ahlam Akram, a British-Palestinian and advocate for women’s rights in the Arab world and in the UK, who will be hosting a panel that includes Jewish and Arab women in Westminster this week.

“If we start with the ceasefire and a timed plan for the end of occupation based on justice and equality, then maybe there will be more willingness,” she told The National.

She hoped that popular support for a resolution to the conflict could influence the British government and international community’s response. “We have to be clever enough to utilise public support to influence political decision makers, not just the street,” she said.

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Updated: November 29, 2023, 12:07 PM