Gazans show solidarity with jailed British protesters



 
In a statement released by the Palestinian Students' Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel and the University Teachers' Association in Palestine, Gazan academics and students have found themselves in the unusual situation of having to express solidarity with protesters in the UK.
 
By Sarah Irving
 
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“We support and salute your willingness to suffer the consequences that come with demonstrating in a ‘free’ Western country against the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against us, the Palestinians of Gaza, crimes that the entire world witnessed,” the statement read, continuing: “How typical of the UK establishment and police to overlook what it is these men and women were so angry about - a massive act of bombing and mass murder of our civilian population, sealed in the Gaza concentration camp, 1.5 million people crushed by a hermetic siege, and with the direct use of equipment supplied by Britain, as a House of Commons report on strategic exports controls recently admitted.”
 
The Gazan statement refers to the controversial sentences being handed down by a West London court to protesters arrested at demonstrations which took place in January 2009 against the major Israeli re-invasion of Gaza.
 
Of 119 demonstrators known to have been arrested, the majority are young Muslims, many of them students and most of them with no criminal records.
 
“They can't say our boys are criminals,” says Badi Tebani, an Algerian refugee living in London, whose son Yahia was sentenced to a year in prison. Yahia says he took a chair from a branch of Starbucks to sit on, but police allege that the cafe was wrecked and the chairs broken and used as weapons. Yahia gave his details to the police in order to be allowed to leave the area after police 'kettled' the crowd; three months later the family's home was raided while they slept. “My wife is very depressed, when she sees police in the street she feels very frightened. They destroyed our life,” says Tebani.
 
According to Manchester-based academic Joanna Gilmore, the sentences - including many jail terms of a year or more - handed down to Gaza protesters are far more severe than those given to anti-capitalist demonstrators charged with similar offences.
 
Human rights lawyer Matt Foot has also called the dawn raids used against many of the Gaza protesters 'extreme,' and has also suggested that many of the demonstrators were charged with offences out of proportion to their actual actions. Islamophobia and racism could “easily be a factor” in the severity of the charges and sentences, he admits.
 
Joanna Berridge of the Gaza Demonstrators Support Campaign also thinks that Islamophobia has played a part in the judge's decision to hand down “deterrent” sentences to young men with no prior criminal convictions. “We think this is about political policing of protest,” she suggests, believing that young Muslims are being victimised by the authorities because they are 'soft targets' and can be used to create legal precedents without the outcry that might meet long sentences for white activists.
 
“It's really important that these boys don't get used as an example, because this will stay on their record for years. They were protesting about something as widely recognised as war crimes against Gaza. That's not been taken into account but it should really be focused on, that these brave and conscious young people were going out and taking a stand and are having their lives ruined as a result,” says Berridge.
 
“They demonstrated to support people in Gaza and all the world knows what happened there, how many people were killed in Gaza, how many houses destroyed,” agrees Badi Tebani, who fears that a criminal record will harm his son's job prospects in the future. “People tried to stop the catastrophe in Gaza, to say to the British government to stop the war. But the government sends them to jail.”