A coalition of Islamists and hard left activists marched through London on Saturday, January 13, demanding an end to Israeli military action in Gaza. The protesters, who numbered in the tens of thousands, called for a ceasefire while expressing no concern for the 131 hostages, including two Britons, still held by Hamas 100 days after the October 7 massacre, which prompted Israel’s invasion of Gaza. I joined the demonstration, listened to the speeches, and spoke with participants.
The January 13 protest was relatively tame compared to the protests that took place soon after the massacre when some protesters wore images of paragliders and called for “jihad” and “an intifada from London to Gaza.” The somewhat toned down protest is likely the result of a warning from Lord Walney, the government’s independent advisor on political violence, who declared that anyone chanting “jihad” on Saturday should be arrested on sight.
A review submitted to the Home Office by Walney in December urged a change in the law to give the police discretion to ban pro-Palestinian marches because of the explosion of anti-Semitic incidents linked to the marches, which rose 1,350 percent between October 7 and 20, 2023 according to Metropolitan Police figures. Nevertheless, there were troubling signs of continued radicalism and hostility on the part of protesters at the January 13 rally. In a speech, Mohammed El-Kurd, affiliated with Friends of Al-Aqsa, one of the lead organizers of the rally, declared that “we must normalize massacres as the status quo.”
Activists from the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party assisted in the Islamist campaign to portray Hamas’s war crimes as a legitimate act of self-defense. They gathered signatures for a ceasefire petition at a stall at head of the march and distributed copies of the Socialist Worker newspaper the front cover of which portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as “Guilty of Genocide.” “Socialist Worker” placards displayed at the march declared “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”
As I spoke with protesters massed at the head of the march at Bank Junction, a middle-aged woman in a hijab accompanied by her husband, carried a placard that accused Netanyahu, Biden, and Sunak of “mass murder,” displaying the three alongside an image of Hitler. The woman denied that her placard was inflammatory. She was unaware that a senior Hamas figure, Sami Abu Zuhri, had called for “violent acts against American and British interests everywhere, as well as the interests of all the countries that support the occupation on Al Aqsa TV (Hamas-Gaza) on December 13, or that the following day, seven suspected Hamas operatives were arrested across Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands accused of trying to locate a weapons cache in preparation for carrying out attacks in Europe.
She said she did not consider Hamas was a terror group, and doubted that it had committed the atrocities reported from Israel on October 7. Shaking her head, she said “Thank goodness for the internet, so we know what is happening, after all the lies told by Israel and the BBC.” She claimed Israel funded Hamas, that Israel did not want a two-state solution, and that Israelis “could have lived peacefully alongside the Palestinians instead of taking more and more land, humiliating them with blockades and checkpoints.” The activist shook her head at the suggestion that the blockade of Gaza was the inevitable response to Hamas launching rockets at Israel from a huge arsenal they had amassed to fight “jihad” for a caliphate in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. She denied that Hamas is motivated by a Jew-hatred expressed in its charter, which itself quotes a hadith that expresses contempt for the Jews.
“I do not know any Muslims who are antisemitic,” she declared. She also lamented that members of Parliament had roundly defeated a motion for a ceasefire brought by the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons on November 23. The vote was “shameful” and the MPs who voted against it “had no morals,” she said. Which candidates would she be voting for in the general election later this year? “None of them.”
As the march advanced past St. Paul’s Cathedral towards the Royal Courts of Justice in Temple, a protestor in a Rishi Sunak mask waved a wad of fake dollar bills and a sickle. Another protester in a Netanyahu mask and a magazine of imitation bullets around his neck carried a baby doll drenched in red paint, signifying blood. As the freezing weather began to bite, I and others attempting to buy a coffee in McDonald’s found its door locked and being selectively unlocked, due to a flash mob of Islamist activists having plastered its windows with campaign stickers including “This Brand Supports Genocide” and “Boycott! This Company Supports Israel’s Genocide on Gaza” alongside gunsight targets.
Further down the procession, another protestor carried a giant effigy of Keir Starmer, the Labour opposition leader who opposed the vote in parliament calling for a ceasefire, with the slogan “Starmer for genocide.” Activists prostrated themselves in Muslim prayer on the lawn outside the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral, which serves as the seat of the Bishop of London.
On the Embankment, a young woman carrying a placard bearing the slogan “Exist, Resist, Return,” and the logo of the “Muslim Association of Britain” acknowledged that the group she was promoting was a front of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas was the Palestinian arm.
When asked if she thought Hamas was a terror group, she said “I think it’s a movement that is trying to liberate its people.” She said she was against “the killing of innocent civilians, women and children, whatever their ethnicity, race or creed, but if you keep kicking a dog, don’t be surprised if it bites you.”
At Trafalgar Square, an activist who said he had spent years living in Gaza, told me it was the lack of freedom in the Gaza Strip, not Hamas’s extremism, that was the cause of the current conflict and that in any event, “Hamas is a creation of Israel! Hamas was funded by Israel because it preferred to promote Islamist extremists with an impossible ‘all or nothing’ agenda rather than secular nationalists to whom it might actually have to cede land in a two-state solution.”
There are signs that British leaders are getting tired of the protests. Sir Julian Lewis, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, told the House of Commons on Monday that the “well-funded organisers” of the demonstrations that have taken place since October 7 should foot the bill for policing the endless protests, the cost of which was estimated to total £20 million by December 10.
Home Secretary James Cleverly stated that “We recognise that there is legitimacy to public protests; we do also recognise that the unprecedented and unwarranted pressure that this is putting on policing around the country is having an impact on communities,” he said. “My view is that the organizers have made their point, repeating it does not strengthen their argument.”
The persistence of the protests demonstrate how Islamists in the UK have taken effective advantage of recent conflict, warns Steven Greer, author of Tackling Terrorism in Britain: Threats, Responses, and Challenges Twenty Years After 9/11.
“The problem that the West has with Islamism is that it is losing the propaganda war, particularly with the youth,” he said. “People tend to buy into this narrative that Muslims in the West are oppressed by the state and by society, and that we live in an ‘Islamophobic’ environment. To sustain that narrative requires a great deal of effort and finance.”
Lord Carlile, a Crossbench member of the House of Lords and former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said the notion that Hamas is not a terror group, an idea promoted by many of the attendees, is of extreme concern. One can criticize Israel’s prosecution of the war, but Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians should be the “starting point” of any real discussion of the conflict, he said.
“Hamas has been proscribed in the UK,” he said. “Anyone who has seen even a snip of the footage of October 7 that’s available will see how it was at the extremes of revolting, genocidal terrorism.”
Note: Additional photos of the rally are available in the gallery below.
Hannah Baldock is a UK-based researcher on radicalization and terrorism.