Israel-Gaza war: pro-Palestinian 'flashmob' descends on Preston railway station during Friday rush hour
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The group gathered on the ramp leading to the station's central platforms at 5pm, one of the busiest moments of the week.
Organiser Michael Lavalette told the Lancashire Post that the intention was to raise awareness, not cause disruption - and so those taking part positioned themselves to ensure that there was still sufficient space for the travelling public to pass by on either side.
The former Preston city councillor said that the protestors were approached by British Transport Police and asked what they were doing, but were not moved on after declaring their intention to congregate for half an hour and then leave.
“What we hoped was that people would go home on a Friday night to enjoy their weekend, but maybe talk to family and friends about what they had seen at Preston station, because it was something a bit unusual.
“[The aim was] to get people talking about Gaza and the horror of what's happening there - so, in those terms, we all thought it was very worthwhile.
“What was really interesting was that there were a lot of people who were clearly commuting, but some of them were stopping before they got on the train and chanting with us for a few minutes, [while others] were getting off their train and staying with us for a couple of chants,” Michael said.
Those chants included, “What do we want? Ceasefire. When do we want it? Now,” but also the far more controversial and divisive: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Many in the Jewish community say that the latter is antisemitic and amounts to a call to erase Israel from the map.
When it appeared on several banners at pro-Palestinian march through Preston city centre a fortnight ago, Jeremy Dable, the Jewish representative on Preston’s faith covenant, told the Post: “There’s no way at all that [the slogan] will be interpreted by any Jew in any way other than to call for total annihilation [of Israel].”
However, Michael defended its use by the flashmob, saying that it was “the opposite” of demanding that Jews be forced out of their territory.
“Its historic roots are that, in the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organisation [the PLO] produced a document, [in] which their solution to the [Middle East] problem…was for a single, secular, Palestinian state in which Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of no faith could live as equals between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
“Out of that came, ‘From the river to sea, Palestine will be free…’ - and what it means is free in terms of free, equal social justice for all,” said Michael, who represented parties including Respect and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition during more than a decade at the town hall from 2003.
However, the American Jewish Committee says that “calling for the elimination of the Jewish state…or suggesting that the Jews alone do not have the right to self-determination, is antisemitic”.
A Labour MP, Andy McDonald, is currently suspended from the Parliamentary party for partially quoting the slogan in a wider comment about all people in the region living “in peaceful liberty”, while the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has said that the phrase is "widely understood" to be a call for the destruction of Israel.
Six coaches from Preston headed to London on Saturday to take part in a national pro-Palestinian march.
According to the Gazan health ministry – appointed by Hamas, the UK-proscribed terror organisation that controls the Gaza Strip – over 11,000 Palestinians have so far been killed there during Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack on its territory last month. In that assault, around 1,200 Israelis died - a figure revised down slightly by Israel in recent days - and more than 200 were kidnapped.
On Friday, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said that “far too many” Palestinians had died during Israel’s military operation in the densely populated Gaza Strip, with 4,500 of the deaths estimated to have been amongst children.