Activists in London have a tradition of reclaiming abandoned buildings, sometimes to use them as social centers, sometimes for definite periods of mobilization. On the last weekend in May, the latest such center was opened, but this time with a very singular focus.
In their foundational statement, the activists behind the initiative describe Palestine Place as “a radical center for discussion, action and education around the issue of Palestine.” Planned as a temporary space for the first two weeks of June, Palestine Place has generated a massive buzz among Palestine solidarity campaigners in London. I went along to cover the opening night for The Electronic Intifada.
Even before I arrived, Palestine solidarity groups had already used the space to plan, organize and hold meetings. The Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association had, for example, hosted a twinning workshop with Abdulwahab Sabbah, the group’s coordinator in East Jerusalem.
A large office on Gray’s Inn road, the building sprawls vertically over no less than five floors, plus a basement. The ground floor has been set up as a reception area for mixing and socializing; there is a kitchen in the basement, and the first floor is used to hold events and meetings. The upper floors are being used by those sleeping over. For the time being, squatting is still legal in the UK.
On the opening night there was a poetry reading. Palestinian poet and activist Rafeef Ziadah was due to perform, but was unable to make it. Poet Anthony Anaxagorou performed some of his politically-charged spoken-word pieces, very much winning the crowded room over.
After the show, back downstairs on the reception level, I saw old friends and comrades mixing with plenty of new faces. Encouragingly, there was a good number of Palestinians in the crowd, not only western solidarity activists.
Anan Quzmar is a coordinator with the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University in the West Bank. He had previously been a student in London, and was currently back for a trip to the city. Activists from Palestine Place had asked him to host a discussion on the opening day while he was in town. His workshop focused on the youth movement that has become active in Palestine over the last year and a half, emerging from solidarity protests with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings last year.
Support for hunger strikes
Quzmar said he was excited that Palestine Place allowed for a wider, open dynamic in which people can bring in their own ideas. This helps “people to talk about Palestine and to keep the issue on top of the political agenda … I like the fact that it’s not just talk, it’s also action.”
The space is being used as a center for organizing demonstrations and direct action in support of Palestine. On Tuesday, activists set out from Palestine Place and walked to Trafalgar Square in support of Mahmoud Sarsak and other Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. Sarsak, seriously ill from a lengthy hunger strike, has been jailed by Israel for almost three years without charge or trial.
Back at the opening night, I spoke to Saleh Hijazi, a Palestinian currently living in London and a human rights campaigner who came to take part in Anan’s workshop.
“At first I couldn’t really comprehend it, or understand how London squatting can be connected to Palestine,” he said.
In the Palestinian context one might normally associate “squatting” with Israelis settlers, I offered. The idea of “a land without a people” is “the base of the Zionist movement,” he said.
“But then [I thought] … to be able to create this kind of free space for discussion, for organizing, is fantastic … because solidarity with Palestinians in London has been trapped in certain circles … not to say anything bad about them, but this is new [and will bring in new people].”
The project is an “outbreak from traditional forms of organizing,” Hijazi added. “It’s inspirational to say the least — it’s actually something that could feed back to what’s happening in Palestine … we’ll see how this goes here.”
Dalal, a Palestinian involved in organizing Palestine Place who declined to give her last name, said it “is brilliant because it’s bringing all of the people who care about Palestine together. We’re hoping in the future to expand the project and to have people in other cities in the UK to do the same.”
On Monday via video link, former Palestinian prisoner and hunger striker Khader Adnan spoke to a Western audience for the first time since his April release from Israel’s Ramle prison. He described Palestine Place as “a pioneering idea” and encouraged the British people to “go out into the streets and protest your government to change the situation in Palestine,” according to a transcript.
Other activists and renowned cultural figures associated with Palestine are due to speak, including Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, author and contributor to The Electronic Intifada Ben White, the outspoken Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, comedian Jeremy Hardy and Palestinian writer Ghada Karmi.
Palestine Place has also been used to help organize a demonstration against British-Danish security firm G4S outside its annual general meeting.
G4S provides equipment to the Israeli prisons in which Palestinian political prisoners are illegally held. Activists have produced an alternative annual report detailing G4S’s record. It gives details of how G4S guards have been implicated in the death of Jimmy Mubenga — an Angolan who was being deported from Britain — as well as criticisms of its administration of prisons, probation and welfare services in Britain.
Palestine Place organizers say they aim to combine political and cultural events with mobilizing direct action in support of Palestine. The building is also being used to exhibit photography from Palestine, and to screen films such as the documentary series Chronicles of a Refugee. With a week left to go until the closing event, anyone interested should get down to Palestine Place.
Palestine Place’s closing night is scheduled for Sunday, 17 June at 24 Gray’s Inn Road, London. A full schedule of events is available at http://palestineplace.wordpress.com.
Asa Winstanley is a journalist from London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.