LONDON — As Israel supporters gathered to show solidarity outside the country’s London Embassy on Sunday the overriding sentiment was, “Hamas has left Israel with no choice.” The, according to police figures, upwards of 1,500 supporters called for peace — and railed against the media’s portrayal of this latest outbreak of violence. (UK Zionist Federation figures place the number much higher, at 5,000.)
With Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza expanding and the reported Palestinian death toll rising to above 400, speakers made clear they felt Israel had been pushed into a corner and attendees waved banners calling for the rockets to stop and for peace to prevail.
But many who had attended a similar, if much larger rally in London’s Trafalgar Square less than five years ago, held little hope.
“I want it all to stop,” said Elisheva Klein, 18, whose brother is serving in the IDF and who used to live in Israel herself, echoing the tone of others present. “I have huge love for Israel, but we need or end it for everybody, not just for ourselves. Both sides want peace; it’s not fair on anyone that this is happening.”
Free Palestine stickers, leftover from Saturday’s 15,000-strong anti-Israel march at which activists declared “Israel is a terror state,” were still visible on the ground. But the crowd was defiant, draped in flags and singing Hebrew songs.
The majority of supporters were from London’s large Jewish community, with the full spectrum of age and religiosity represented; more than a few Christians were present as well. Taxi drivers and cyclists waving Israel flags drove up and down Kensington High Street to register their support.
Organized by the Zionist Federation and secured by the Metropolitan Police and the Community Security Trust, the rally was backed by a number of Jewish communal organizations, including the Board of Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students. Attendees included Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub and former Sderot mayor David Bouskila. The current British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was a notable absence.
Midway through the afternoon a siren was sounded to “recreate the conditions that led to Operation Protective Edge” and give shoppers on upmarket High Street Kensington an idea of life under threat of terror. As the siren wailed, the crowd crouched somberly, a moment marred only by a pro-Palestinian activist shouting “shame on you.” Overall, however, counter-protesters were few and far between.
Although no politician from the governing Conservative Party spoke, MP and Labour Friends of Israel officer Louise Ellman issued a public call for an end to the rockets and for the British Government to work for a negotiated ceasefire “so that innocent civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian, can live.” She spoke of the absolutely tragic number of civilian deaths, but was clear that responsibility ultimately belonged with Hamas.
Others agreed, acknowledging the growing number of casualties, but emphasizing that Israel has the right to self-defense.
“Hamas is leaving Israel with no option but to retaliate,” Board of Deputies President Vivien Wineman told the crowd. “The common enemy of Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas.”
“Of course we want an end to it,” said Steven Roston, from Hertfordshire, who said that the growing Israeli ground offensive was worrying given the potential for loss of life. But he emphasized it was essential for Israel.
“If any other country was under the same pressure they would react far more strongly,” Roston pointed out. “When Hamas send in rockets they don’t care who they kill. We use the Iron Dome to stop missiles, they use people. Israel has to protect its citizens. What choice is there?”
Elizabeth Rowan, a Christian supporter of Israel, criticized the media for ignoring why Israel had launched the latest offensive.
“They don’t speak the truth about what is actually happening,” she said. “They don’t understand if they were in a similar position they would want to protect their homeland, their children. They don’t seem to understand that Israel wants peace, that Hamas is a terrorist organization.”
Many had arrived by public transport, but were firm that they and others had not been worried to come and publicly display their solidarity, despite recent clashes in Paris and with public opinion in Britain widely critical of Israel.
Nevertheless, numbers were a far cry from the solidarity rally in London at the height of the Second Intifada, when upwards of 30,000 people turned Trafalgar Square blue and white, or even the Closer to Israel march from Hyde Park just over a year ago when thousands turned out to celebrate Israel’s 65th. Four and a half years ago, during Operation Cast Lead, tens of thousands attended rallies in London and Manchester. In contrast, support seemed diminished.
It was organized with very short notice,” pointed out Roston, who attended the 2009 rally. With many of the community’s younger activists in Israel leading tour groups, the timing surely had an impact, as did the location: Kensington High Street simply cannot cater to the numbers that Trafalgar Square can. But some Israel supporters had chosen to stay away.
“I probably don’t agree with most people there,” said Daniel Sommer, a 26-year-old doctor from London, who chose not to come along, despite having attended pro-Israel rallies in the past. “Also, I do think the situation is different. Obviously, I support Israel’s right to defend against horrific rocket attacks but I feel like Netanyahu is to blame for starting this.”
Nevertheless, for the organizers the rally sent a strong symbol. Addressing the crowd, the ZF’s Chairman Paul Charney thanked them for coming.
“Israel is looking at the UK and saying we have friends,” said Charney.