LONDON - Despite efforts to shut it down, the event billed as the largest Palestinian solidarity expo ever to take place in Europe opened as planned Saturday morning, with thousands of enthusiastic ticket holders streaming through the doors of the Queen Elizabeth II Center in Westminster to celebrate Palestinian heritage, culture and history.
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They were there to dance dabke with their children, order up majadara and chicken at the food court, join in spoken word performances, snap photos of a mock Gaza refugee camp tent, and, above all, tap into lectures and panels on the theme of the gathering: “2017 as the year of 100 years of the Balfour Declaration, 50 years of Israel’s occupation and 10 years of the siege on Gaza.”
Organized by the nonprofit organization Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA), and featuring speakers ranging from filmmaker John Pilger to historian Ilan Pappe to hijab wearing Marks and Spencer’s model Mariah Idrissi to Muslim student leader Malia Bouattia – the expo had a rocky time getting off the ground. Last month, Communities Minister Sajid Javid, whose department controls the central London venue, threatened to stop organizers from using the space – despite ticket sales and planning long underway.
Under pressure from various organizations – Jewish Human Rights Watch prime among them – to bar “groups which oppose our values and ideals,” from holding “a thinly veiled cover for Jew hatred” in a government owned building, Javid wrote to FOA founder Ismail Patel. Javid voiced concern that FOA – which defines itself as a human rights organization "working in defense of the sacred al-Aqsa” compound – and those "connected with it” had expressed public support for Hamas, and had supported events at which Hamas and Hezbollah were praised.
Following much back and forth – including threats by the FOA to take Javid’s ministry to court for discrimination – the expo was eventually given the green light to go ahead as planned. But its troubles did not end there. The next obstacle arose in the shape of a news story in the Telegraph newspaper calling out one of the invited speakers to the expo. In the report, soon repeated and amplified in the popular tabloid Daily Mail, South African preacher Ebrahim Bham was labeled as an Islamic hate preacher, which led to a whole new last minute onslaught of criticism of the planned expo.
“We find it incomprehensible that despite the intelligence we have provided, the government is permitting extremism to flourish,” argued Gideon Falter, of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, who urged Prime Minister Theresa May to block Bham not only from the expo, but from entering the country. Jennifer Gerber, director of Labour Friends of Israel, in turn, criticized those trade unions that supported the event: “The values of peace, anti-racism and equality which [those unions]claim to defend seem sadly absent from Mr Bham's speeches,” she charged.
Bham responded by rejecting charges he had categorized Jews as “sub-human,” or meant to endorse the Nazi comparison of Jews “to fleas,” with organizer Patel backing him up, arguing the charges of extremism leveled at the FOA, at Bham and at any other speakers at the conference were but a “smear campaign” intended to prevent pro-Palestinian voices from being heard.
"It’s clear to anyone who looks at the Palestine Expo schedule of events that this is a diverse event, supported by many with speakers who are Israeli, Palestinian and British, and of Muslim, Jewish and Christian beliefs,” he said.
Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious to all this background noise, and breezily ignoring both the tiny protest outside the venue Saturday – which consisted of half a handful of demonstrators with a large Israeli flag and a megaphone – and the far more massive and rowdy Gay Pride parade – which happened to be taking place the same morning right around the corner – the families, students, academics and activists who arrived at the expo were in a celebratory mood.
Security was minimal, cheerful hosts handed out dried dates and cookies, and children were dressed in holiday best. Traditional embroidered Palestinian dresses and colorful kefiyyas were on show, and teenagers were busy snapping selfies with each other and with the speakers, many of whom were treated as superstars. Cheers of “Free, Free Palestine,” rang out in the foyer, and the names of Israeli ambassador Mark Regev and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, referenced in various talks, were repeatedly jeered.
While there were far fewer than the 10,000 participants organizers had promised, the sessions were packed. These featured talks on the likes of “The origins of Zionism” (“How can anyone stand up today and say Zionism is justified?” asked Palestinian activist Miko Peled, the Jerusalem born son of a general); “Fifty shades of Occupation,” (“Give the Palestinians their land back and then sit down to work out a peaceful solution,” advised speaker Virginia Tilley, co-author of a recent UN report calling Israel an apartheid regime.); and "100 Years of Balfour: Britain’s legacy in Palestine” (“From the beginning Britain was an accomplice in creating a Jewish homeland at the expense of protecting Arab communities,” per Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford.)
The expo continues Sunday.