I was talking to my friend Jon on the phone the other day. We’d just held a rally in Canterbury, outside the Cathedral gates, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. About 200 people turned up to show their support. Our speakers included Hugh Lanning, the 2015 Labour Parliamentary candidate for the Canterbury constituency, ex-Deputy General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union and ex-Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Lanning was the first British national banned from Israel, in March 2017, under Amendment No. 28 to the Entry Into Israel Law, which allowed known supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to be refused entry. Also speaking were Dr Shahd Hammouri, a Jordanian Palestinian and expert in International Law at Kent University, the Right Reverend Richard Llewellin, former suffragan Bishop of Dover and former Bishop of Lambeth, Chris Nineham from the Stop the War Coalition and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of Jewish Voice for Labour.
You can read about our rally and see the film of the speeches, here. It was Jon who took the photos and made the video. He expressed concern about me using his name in the byline, saying that it was about the Palestinian people, not about him. He was also pessimistic about what difference we could make. Let’s face it, 200 people standing in the rain in Canterbury, chanting slogans and listening to speeches, isn’t really going to make much of a difference to the world is it? He’s right.
My view is, it’s better to be an optimist and wrong, than a pessimist and right. What other purpose do we have but to stay alive and make the best of it? Life is a gamble, a toss-up between purposelessness and purpose. It may all come to nothing in the end, but better to assume that it does have some meaning, and to try to grasp it, than to assume that it doesn’t and give in to lassitude.
If you’re a resident of Gaza right now, with bombs raining down, with food, fuel, water and medicine cut off, civilian infrastructure destroyed, hospitals, schools and mosques targeted, your children slaughtered in the dark, no internet or phone connection, with even the aid agencies expressing despair, while the most powerful governments in the world are refusing to call for a ceasefire, maybe “optimism” might not be the most appropriate word. I’ve no idea how those people will be feeling. I only know that those that survive will be more angry, vengeful, and more embittered than they already are and that the consequences for the future are incalculable.
People talk about the Hamas attack on October 7 as if it happened in a vacuum. Why don’t the Palestinian people protest peacefully, they ask? But they did, in 2018, during the Great March of Return. The people marched to the fences that surround their little enclave, to call for an end to the blockade and the right of return of the refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948. They marched peacefully at first, in tens of thousands, though later on, as the death toll rose, some of the protesters began throwing stones and lighting fires to distract the Israeli forces that were shooting at them. What was Israel’s response? It placed snipers on the hills surrounding Gaza, aiming at medical staff, reporters, and people in wheelchairs, killing at least 189 people, while deliberately disabling many more, shooting at people’s legs. It’s now common to see young men in Gaza struggling through the wreckage on crutches, legs bandaged up or in metal frames, bones held together by pins and screws.
It’s part of Israeli propaganda to compare Hamas to ISIS. But ISIS didn’t happen in a vacuum either. ISIS was a consequence of the war in Iraq, just as Hamas is a consequence of 75 years of occupation. The Palestinian people have tried peaceful means. The PLO, a secular movement, accepted Israel’s right to exist, and gave up the armed struggle, in exchange for which they were promised a Palestinian state on the small island of land that remained to them. But what has Israel done? It has continued to build illegal settlements. It has devised a system of apartheid, whereby Palestinians live as second-class citizens in their own country, trapped by walls and security fences, with checkpoints at every turn, with separate roads, where violent settlers harry them and kill them on a daily basis, uprooting their olive trees and stealing their land and homes, while the Israeli army looks on with malign indifference.
“Hamas” is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, meaning “the Islamic Resistance Movement.” It’s designated a terrorist organization by a number of Western governments, but celebrated by many in the global south. Terrorism is a tactic, not a purpose. The Israeli government is also engaged in terrorist acts, as any observation of what’s taking place in Gaza right now will confirm. In international law, the occupier doesn’t have the right to defend itself against the occupied, but the occupied do have the right of resistance. The French Resistance during WWII employed terrorist tactics, and were designated as terrorists by the Nazi occupiers. These days we celebrate them as heroes.
Ronald Reagan famously quipped that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” He supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, later to morph into the Taliban. As the Taliban, fighting the Americans, they were terrorists. As the Mujahideen, fighting the Russians, they were freedom fighters. Reagan also backed the Contras in Nicaragua: freedom fighters to the Americans, terrorists to the Nicaraguans. The United States trained terrorists at the School of the Americas, and unleashed a wave of atrocities throughout Latin America, from the 1940s to the 1990s. Many of its graduates served in far-right security state governments who engaged in human rights abuses and torture, terrorizing their own populations. Currently the United States supports the Azov Brigade in Ukraine, an openly Nazi outfit. The Russians have designated them a terrorist organization. They are considered freedom fighters by the West. No doubt if Hamas was fighting the Russians instead of the Israelis, they’d be considered freedom fighters too.
Hamas, the word, means “zeal” in Arabic. These people are zealots by another name. There was a Jewish sect in the first century AD called the Zealots. Like Hamas, their purpose was to resist a military occupation by waging a guerrilla war. Jesus hung around with one of them, Simon the Zealot, which means that he must’ve shared at least some of their views. Didn’t he tell his followers to sell their cloaks and buy swords? The Zealots also engaged in terrorist acts. None of this is new. Sometimes I wonder if we might not be living in middle of the apocalypse.
Like almost everyone else in the world, I imagine, I’ve been obsessing over what’s taking place in Israel and Palestine. The sight of so much suffering, so much trauma, on both sides, can make you go a little crazy. The minute I heard the news of the Hamas incursion into Southern Israel, I knew what the Israeli response would be. We’ve seen it so many times. For every Israeli killed, dozens, maybe hundreds of Palestinians would have to suffer and die. For every Israeli child a disproportionate number of Palestinian children would be slaughtered. It’s always seemed to me that Israel’s a psychotic state, bent out of shape by the punishment it has been inflicting upon others for so long. It no longer knows the meaning of humanity. Israelis only know their self-identity as a superior race, as it is written into their own law. This is fascism by any other name.
Israelis sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are afraid to speak out or are driven into hiding. Rampaging mobs attack Palestinian students crying “Death to Arabs.” There are calls for Gaza to be razed from the map, or to turn it into a city of tents. Israeli spokesmen are naked in their de-humanizing rhetoric, openly referring to Palestinians as animals. Settler extremists are being armed. Israeli people are out for revenge. A new violence is being unleashed in the world in a way we haven’t seen for more than half a century. To quote WB Yeats in his most famous poem, The Second Coming:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In the midst of all this there’s a propaganda war taking place. The truth is being actively suppressed. For example, there was a news item on Israeli radio where an Israeli woman, held captive by the Hamas fighters, said that the Israeli army were firing wildly, killing their own people. She said that she was treated humanely. Another report (in Haaretz) said that commanders in the field deliberately shelled houses with all their occupants inside “in order to eliminate the terrorists along with the hostages.” Some of the burnt bodies paraded by the Israeli army as victims of the Hamas attacks, were the victims of indiscriminate Israeli fire. There’s a comprehensive report on this in the Grayzone, here.
Another piece of suppressed news, at least by the mainstream media here in the UK, is the video of the three Israeli hostages. None of the major news stations in Britain showed it. The BBC described it as “really hard to watch” and, rather than let us make our own minds up, chose instead to go into elaborate descriptions of the video, even taking time to detail the tiling on the walls. This is an odd approach as anyone can find the video on the internet. It’s freely available, and while it’s distressing, it’s also fiercely honest. The woman who speaks directs her anger at Netanyahu and the Israeli government. “You want to find a way to kill us all,” she says. “Not enough you killed everyone. Not enough Israeli citizens were killed. Free us. Free us now. Free their citizens. Free their prisoners. Free us. Free all of us,” she says, increasingly distressed, before screaming at the camera, “Now! Now! Now!”
Watching the video makes it clear that, while she’s under duress, the words and the anger are all her own. Not tutored, not extorted, but evident for all to see. What’s also obvious is that, with its continued bombing, the Israeli army is putting these women, and all of the hostages, at risk. They say they want to wipe out Hamas, no matter the cost. Not only are innocent Palestinians dying, but innocent Israelis will die too. Such is the Israeli government’s concern for human life, even its own citizens.
I’ve spent the last few weeks collecting material on my Twitter feed: news, interviews, speeches, articles, showing how insane it all is. If you only watch one video let it be this: a little Palestinian girl talking to the world, especially the Arab world, about the plight of the Palestinian children. If you can’t understand her words, or hear the outrage in her voice, and empathize with her and all of the Palestinian people trapped in their deadly ghetto, then you’re past all human understanding.
I can’t bear to see the bodies of any more Palestinian children being brought out of the rubble, limp and lifeless like broken dolls. I can’t bear to watch the mothers and fathers in their grief and anger. I can’t bear to hear the screams of pain or to see whole residential blocks turned into mausoleums. I can’t listen to the Israeli lies, or their clumsy propaganda. I can’t listen to the bland and meaningless words of the politicians on all sides, refusing to call for a ceasefire, despite the war crimes committed before their eyes. It’s all too painful, too distressing. How much worse must it feel for the Palestinian diaspora, all of those millions of displaced people around the world, the victims of 75 years of Israeli violence? How much worse for the people of the West Bank, themselves subject to ongoing settler violence and IDF attacks. How much worse for the Palestinian citizens of Israel itself, knowing they’ll always be second-class citizens in a state which denies their autonomy? How much worse for the people of Gaza, whose plight is unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t suffered such a relentless onslaught of extreme violence? What are our demonstrations in the face of all this? But what other choice do we have? We have to act, even if our actions are futile. We have to act, in the name of our humanity.
A friend told me that a Palestinian friend of hers in Jerusalem told her that our demonstrations do make a difference. They tell them that they’re not alone, that they’re not abandoned. And by this means we’re reaching out across the world, in solidarity and hope. Seeing people in New York, Amman, Paris and London taking to the streets not, as our Home Secretary Suella Braverman put it, in hate marches, but in demonstrations of love, for the Palestinian people, and for all the oppressed people of the world. I really believe this. The world’s waking up, at last, to the terrible crimes being committed by the war machine and its propagandists, in Israel and throughout the world. We’re becoming one people at last. The only question is, will you join us?
—Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone