After years of demonising those who oppose the occupation, Britain’s government has finally gone a step further — making expressions of solidarity with Palestinians a criminal offence.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has instructed police to treat expressions of solidarity with Palestinians as criminal offences. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman MP, wrote to Chief Constables across the country, instructing them to further crack down on expressions of solidarity with Palestine. She suggested that protestors chanting ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ could, in certain contexts, breach Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and certainly seems to be encouraging police chiefs to view incidents in that regard. Similarly, following the decision from the Israeli Government, she too toys with the idea of banning the Palestine flag, stating it ‘may not be legitimate’ in some circumstances. Braverman is taking tactics straight out of far-right Israeli Government minister Ben Gvir’s playbook.

It remains to be seen whether police forces will take Braverman up on the offer — and whether such powers are even enforceable in the context of mass demonstrations — but fundamentally, the move signalled a clear political manoeuvre to prejudice Palestine solidarity, and a licence for police to adopt a law and order approach to protests. Most importantly, it represents an attempt to undermine the fundamental right of supporters to express their solidarity with Palestinians — a right that must be defended and exercised energetically.

This latest move by Braverman signifies a further frontier in the ‘chilling effect’ for Palestine solidarity campaigners that has been intensifying for nearly a decade now. Recent years have seen the onslaught of new legislation, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and Public Order Act 2023, which has widened police powers and placed restrictions on protest. In the name of ‘protecting’ young people and social media users from hate, we have seen a rollback in anonymity and encryption protections in the Online Safety Bill, which lies on the brink of being adopted into law. The anti-Boycott Bill continues on its legislative journey, and despite receiving legal advice on its poor drafting and breaching of international norms, the Labour Party abstained at second reading. The entire debate was an exercise in a race to the bottom, with MPs lining up to condemn a viable route for non-violent resistance.

The political consensus contrasts sharply with the popular consensus, defined by widespread support for Palestine in the face of ever more unconscionable acts of brutality by the Israeli state. The immediate catalyst for much of this growing repression is the upsurge in solidarity after the 2014 and 2021 Israeli assaults.

In May 2021, after repeating stormings of Al Aqsa and the attempted forced displacement of residents of Sheikh Jarrah resulted in protests across the land and a coordinated general strike, bringing many towns and cities to a standstill. In the UK, solidarity initiatives reached a new crescendo with groups like Palestine Action dealing financial blow after blow to drone manufacturer Elbit Systems. Demonstrations organised in towns and cities drew ever-swelling crowds, including the largest pro-Palestine demonstration in British history when 180,000 marched in London whilst tens of thousands demonstrated across the country. These demonstrations, combined with the BLM demonstrations of the previous summer and the climate protests of the last few years, have formed the basis of attacks on protest rights in the UK. 

As these major shows of strength shook the streets of Britain in May 2021, a different narrative was unfolding in the corridors of power — and in schools. Social media posts across TikTok and Twitter highlighted schools stopping young people from discussing the topic in classrooms, corridors and canteens across Britain, emboldened by interventions from then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.  In a flagrant breach of their role in fostering civic education and providing a space for young people to learn, discuss, debate and grow, many schools opted to employ a heavy-handed response to these nascent expressions of solidarity. Hundreds of schoolchildren accessed support from a multitude of organisations after receiving detentions, isolation, suspensions, exclusions, and referrals to the Government’s counter-terrorism duty Prevent for expressing solidarity with Palestine or even just for mentioning Palestine in the playground.

The organisation CAGE documented how, after a school in Birmingham gave its students a Prevent presentation, a disabled student with learning difficulties was referred to Prevent. Similarly, Prevent Watch, which was contacted by many parents in May 2021, documented a case where a 12-year-old was spoken to by police officers after expressing solidarity with Palestine. The Islamophobia Response Unit and Palestine in Schools initiative received hundreds of requests for support from young people, their parents and teachers navigating bias against Palestine in schools. The European Legal Support Centre documented over 50 cases spanning the UK and EU wherein Palestinians, Jewish activists and organisations advocating for Palestinian rights were overwhelmingly targeted.

Make no mistake, the letter from Braverman and the attempts to render Palestine solidarity unacceptable are not a show of strength on the part of the Government but a fragile and futile attempt to hinder the inevitable. Real strength and true courage are personified within the Palestinian struggle itself as they struggle against occupation and apartheid. In turn, our responsibility remains to defend, extend and actualise solidarity efforts in the face of increased disinformation, smears and calls for further crackdowns on Palestine solidarity.  

All attempts to paint protests as ‘dangerous’ and ‘divisive’, to paint individuals as provocateurs filled with ‘hate’, to paint school children as vulnerable who require shelter from discussion from this topic must be unequivocally rejected. That requires all of us here in Britain and around the world to uplift the struggle of the Palestinians with confidence. Young people and parents should feel confident that young people have the right to express themselves in schools and elsewhere on the reality of the situation; that Palestinians have a right to resist and to struggle for self-determination, that Israel is an apartheid state and that expressing solidarity with Palestine is fundamentally an exercise in moral clarity and justice. May that justice resonate from the schools and streets of Britain to the streets of Palestine. 

If you, your child or someone in your life faces any reprimand or sanction for expressing solidarity with Palestine please fill out the form linked here.

Palestine in Schools

PreventWatch

European Legal Support Centre

CAGE

Islamophobia Response Unit

Michael Etienne, Barrister

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