All walks of life came together last weekend at Palestine Expo held in the heart of London. Organised by the UK non-profit organisation Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA) it was the debut of the largest event of its kind in Europe. Two days of celebrating Palestinian heritage and culture but also more importantly to acknowledge and discuss the effects of the severe military occupation and apartheid Palestine is currently forcibly under by the Israeli military, and has been for several years. With over 15,000 attendees of diverse backgrounds, this event was clearly a huge success.
It felt extra special to be hosted in the heart of London at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, over five floors of panel discussions, speeches on human rights in Palestine, music, dance, food and activities, there was something for all the family. Only a stone throw from the Houses of Parliament it was also ironic as this year marks 100 years since the Balfour declaration, but also a reminder that governing bodies do not always represent the people they stand for.
There was a long list of brilliant internationally renowned guest speakers who each gave very moving talks of their own personal experiences backed up with factual information. On a very complex and layered issue. I liked how each talk addressed something specific and was very focused on a particular area. I learnt a lot. Something new for me was hearing how illegal settlements are often funded by charitable organisations who may not declare where their funds are going. It was also very heart warming to see all the lecture rooms so full, people had to end up standing at the back or sitting on the floor. Some of the many topics covered included, ‘Women of Occupation’, ‘The origins of Zionism’, ‘Why Jews for Justice for Palestinians’ and ‘Gaza: 10 years of Israeli siege’. There were also a few talks on what we can do in terms of activism to support Palestinians and specific advice for student groups.
Iyad Burnat, who leads the ‘Friends for Freedom in Bil’in’ and ‘Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall’ gave a very emotional talk. I had been humbled to visited him home a few months ago during my stay in Palestine so I was somewhat aware of the crushing occupation he has to endure on a daily basis. He told us every time he leaves Palestine for his activism work the Israeli military attack his family home and five children in the village of Bil’in, they have been attacked over 20 times. On his recent trip to New York to speak at the United Nations, Iyad’s son was shot multiple times and whilst he was receiving treatment he was arrested so his healing was disrupted. It was a very powerful talk which had us all wondering about his family’s safety at that moment he was in London to talk to us. This is a well known tactic of the occupation, where families especially the children of activists are targeted so they do not speak out of fear of intimidation. I have much respect for him knowing his family are in danger but the importance of his travel around the world to speak his truth, which is often manipulated by the media as a form of ‘terrorism’. His talk was followed by a standing ovation, it was extremely moving.
Another speaker who made it hard to hold back tears was Malaka Mohammed, running from talk to talk. A student originally from Gaza spoke about her everyday experience of growing up under the occupation where the sounds of warplanes and drones is just background noise to the children and the difficulties of trying to leave Gaza to pursue an education in the UK. Obstacles included closed border crossings, military harassment and having to apply for multiple visas. The Rafah border is only open once or twice a month and on the day Malaka tried to cross the military decided to not allow any students to cross, despite this Malaka was determined to try and formed a student protest at the border where the military then allowed only 30 students to cross, at first Malaka’s name was not called, but as a stroke of luck the last person called was not present and Malaka’s was allowed to cross as the last person. Having made it to Sheffield university, Malaka then spoke about the resentment she has faced living here being accused of anti-semitism for speaking out against injustices to Palestinians and her family. Of course speaking out for human rights does not make you anti-Semitic, but this is yet another tactic employed by the pro-Zionist lobby. Despite facing continued difficulties, Malaka said she felt privileged to now be in the UK and is determined not to give up her activism work, her strength and courage is such an inspiration and she is a strong role model for women everywhere. Much respect.
The cultural side of Palestine was not forgotten, as the occupation also tries to deny Palestine as has culture of it’s own. The group ‘Fursaan’ who performed a traditional Palestinian dance known as, Dubka was so full, the performance was interrupted when one of the staff came to ask those standing to leave the room due to health and safety issues as there was too much overcrowding and the performance had to be repeated so everyone could get a chance to see it.
There was also a floor of a market place with a vast array of Palestinian and middle eastern goods for sale, Kuffiayehs, dates, Oud, modest clothing, literature and of course halal sweets for the kids. Here you could find many human rights organisations and charities supporting Palestine, such as Interpal, and Stop the War Coalition, Mercy Mission as well as groups organising trips for tree planting and the holy pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa. There were many independent businesses selling their goods. One of the my favourites from the market place was the jewellery made out of olive wood from Bethlehem. Unique designs it’s a wonderful way to stand in solidarity with Palestine and dorn something beautiful.
I also bought a box of the ‘Holy Dates’, dates from Jericho where profits go towards building orphanages in Jerusalem. These dates are not only delicious but also money going towards a good cause. I stopped here to discuss our experiences of traveling to Palestine with one of the stall holders as I noticed his, ‘Straight outta Palestine’ hoodie. Fragrance of the falafel was enough to entice anyone to join the long queue for something to eat in the food court.
The evening saw a sold out performance by the first lady of Hip Hop Shadia Mansour who is Palestinian herself and comedian Aamer Rahman.
Surprisingly there wasn’t an overwhelming police presence which I feel would have overshadowed the event. Everyone was very friendly as we were all here for the same reason, it was easy to exchange a smile and start a conversation. All in all I felt there was a very pleasant atmosphere of positivity and good vibes.
This event went ahead, despite efforts from various hate groups with false allegations and slander, that this event was preaching anti-Semitic content, several of the speakers were in fact themselves Jewish, as were some of the exhibit holders. This is a clever tactic often used by the pro-Zionist lobby, I spoke to the handful (less than 6) protesters outside the huge event to inquire about their feelings on the event and surprisingly they told me they would be open to attend themselves if it wasn’t for certain speakers when I asked whom, they handed me a leaflet of ‘quotes’ clearly misquoted and taken out of context. There definitely seemed to be a misunderstanding of what the event was actually about, but with the lack of support for the opposing side showed to me the understanding of the truth is far greater and growing. The Palestine Expo was in fact a very enjoyable, positive and uplifting experience.
It was very reassuring to see such a massive turnout of a variety of people interested in what’s going on. This event can only grow, I am already looking forward to the next one. Much love to Friends of Al Aqsa and all the organizers! The road to justice is never easy. To all those who say I can’t make a difference or I can’t change things, WE can — this event went ahead despite various efforts to have it shut down and slandered with false allegations, and that IS progress, resistance and HOPE. The take home message for me from this event especially after seeing the diversity of the discussion panel was not to be afraid to stand up and speak out, our voices together can amplify the urgent need for justice and eventually we will be heard.