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‘Free Palestine’ protest draws crowd of hundreds in Bonn Square

CW: antisemitism

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of protestors gathered in Bonn Square to listen to speeches and stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Amid intermittent rain, they marched over an hour from Manzil Way Gardens, a mile away, expressing support for the disputed state of Palestine, with chants such as “Free, free Palestine!”, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, and “Israel is a terror state!”

The protests follow several days of conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. The conflict has seen Hamas fire over 2000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel, and Israeli airstrikes which have killed over 180 people in Gaza (according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry), although Israel’s military says it has been targeting Hamas’ leaders and military infrastructure.

Speakers at the rally included student activists and Oxford City Council members, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Assistant Secretary General of UNISON (one of the UK’s largest trade unions) Roger McKenzie, and former parliamentary candidate David Williams from the Green Party. Some attendees also read out messages and testimony from friends, relatives, and alumni currently in Gaza.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Bonn Square (Credit: Zaman Keinath-Esmail)

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the highest-profile speaker of the event, described his experiences of travelling to Gaza and appealed to the UK Government to clarify whether “our weapons are being used to kill children”. He also talked about the lack of opportunity for Palestinians, highlighting that the average income per capita in Gaza is around $600 per year, despite Gaza inhabitants having more university degrees per capita than Oxford. He finished by saying, “Our message from Oxford today is: stop the bombing, save the lives, recognise Palestine, and stand with the Palestinian people. […] This is a matter of a moment of unity for all people, be they Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or anything else, to say, ‘We stand with the Palestinian people'”.

While calling for Palestinian freedom and opposition to Zionism, many speakers spoke about the need to fight antisemitism, to huge cheers from the audience. However, David Williams courted controversy when he described the Nuremberg Act, passed by the Nazis in 1934, as a “blue copy” for the Israeli Citizenship Act, saying, “It’s exactly the same”. Under the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by Oxford University, it is antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany.

In an interview with The Oxford Blue, one of the speakers, Irene, described her relation to the conflict: “I was born in Jerusalem, I am Palestinian with Israeli identification. I moved here when I was five years old and I didn’t know much about the conflict – I was young, and I didn’t really understand it fully. It’s been such a weird experience seeing the places I grew up in – the streets I used to play in with my cousins – in such a mess. And the catastrophe – when Palestinians were kicked out of our country, we call it the catastrophe – just seeing it happen again and again. The whole world is standing silent, so if no one else is going to speak out, I have to.

I think the protests and the show of solidarity have been amazing and humbling. Even Netanyahu said something about not being prisoners to Twitter users – if he’s acknowledging the impact of Twitter users, we’re really doing something good here. […] I hope in the future that human rights won’t be a controversial issue, and having a home to sleep in won’t be something to have a debate about.”

Asked what students who want to get involved can do, she suggested “Get involved with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, spreading the word, sending letters to MPs – it’s so easy to show support”.

Full transcripts of the speeches to follow.

Image Credits: Photo by Zaman Keinath-Esmail

Zaman Keinath-Esmail

Zaman Keinath-Esmail (she/her) is the Senior Columns Editor at The Oxford Blue, having previously been Senior Opinions Editor. She studies Physics, sits on various society and college committees, and generally advocates for equal rights for everyone. When not in Oxford, she can be found in Washington, DC.