Most Britons used the long weekend and national holiday celebrating Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee to indulge in street parties and other royal-themed events, or to depart the rainy island for a little sunshine. But a small group of activists used the opportunity to take over an office block in central London and establish Palestine Place, a center for pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel themed activities.
Taking advantage of laws that protect citizens occupying disused premises from forced eviction, the activists illegally entered –the organizers prefer the term "reclaimed" – boarded-up shops and office spaces on Grays Inn Road in the central business district of Holborn. After hanging a giant Palestinian-flag-colored banner outside, they used the interior space to create an exhibition filled with large photographs of children confronting Israeli tanks and banners and leaflets explaining how to boycott Israeli goods.
Other rooms are dedicated to related workshops, performances and lectures, as well as to video calls with activists in Israel and the West Bank. On Monday, June 4, about 70 people attended a live video conference from Jenin with Khader Adnan, who was recently released from an Israeli prison after a 66-day hunger strike.
There are workshops on creating documentaries, stenciling T-shirts with Palestinian slogans and new and effective ways to boycott Israel. This weekend will feature "big name" events, including a lecture by historian Ilan Pappe and a performance by comedian Jeremy Hardy.
Sessions are scheduled to plan protests against companies targeted by the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to change Israel's policy toward the Palestinians through economic pressure. The security corporation G4S and electronics company EDO, which operate in Israel, are on the list.
In the spirit of the Occupy protests of last year, there is no clear leadership or organization behind Palestine Place.
One activist says, "It started from two people talking in a bedroom, and then different people and groups just joined in."
None of the recognized pro-Palestinian groups in Britain, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, are officially involved, though PSC leaflets are prominently displayed. But whoever is behind Palestine Place, the organization is impressive. It occupies a central location in one of London's busiest business areas, maintains a 24-hour presence to prevent the authorities from closing it down and has a schedule of events and well-designed website.
"We were just looking for something new and creative to draw attention" says Hilary Kidd, a student working on her laptop in the exhibition space.
"There are no organizers or leaders," says an activist called Kez." We have open general meetings and various working groups."
Palestine Place's founding statement talks of "the ethnic cleansing of Palestine" and Israel's "attempts to drown out the voices of millions across the world calling for an end to its racist programme of Zionism." Its activists pledge fidelity to the BDS principles of an end to the 1967 occupation, equal rights for Israel's Palestinian citizens and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. They claim to be against Zionism, not anti-Israel, though throughout the rooms there are maps of Palestine on which Israel has ceased to exist.
The activists say that so far, in the first three days, around 200 people have knocked on their wooden door and come in for a visit. Some have been veteran supporters, others just passersby. It is hard to gauge their success, especially because Holborn is virtually deserted with Londoners on vacation until Thursday, May 7.
The plan is to continue occupying the space for two weeks. When they first entered on Friday night, the police, alerted by the company that maintains the building, arrived and tried to block them, an attempt that one of the organizers describes as "half-hearted."
The police backed off the moment the activists – well-versed in the laws of "squatting" – claimed that their eviction would be illegal. The lack of confrontation has probably contributed the relatively scant attention the local media has paid to Palestinian Place so far. But it likely has more to do with the fact that the only issue currently exercising the collective British mind is the Queen and her sixty years on the throne.
Last week, a Knesset sub-committee convened a special meeting with representatives of British Jewish organizations to discuss how London has "transformed into a hub of delegitimization of Israel." So the opening of Palestine Place in the city's center will not be a surprise, especially coming just a week after protests against a production of The Merchant of Venice by Israel's national theatre company, Habima, at London's Globe Theater.
The British capital has indeed become the most active center of pro-Palestinian groups, especially those of the BDS strand.
One of the activists at Palestine Place says, "It's useful for us that London is now seen as the hub for the boycott movement and we're satisfied that it's brought up in Israeli discourse, but we are not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Saying that this has any part of our strategy is ridiculous."
John Strange, a self-employed bike courier says, "This is anti-racist and anti-oppression space, and no anti-Semitic discourse will be tolerated here."
Israeli Embassy in London said in response that the "shame of the matter is that instead of being a pro-Palestinian movement, supporting the Palestinian people, it is now an anti-Israeli movement, with no other cause than to target anything and everything Israel-related."
"The nature of their activities cast a heavy shadow over their statements denying being anti-Israel," the embassy added.
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