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Palestinian Society ‘Vigil for Martyrs’ Stirs Controversy

Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish

On the evening of November 10th, members of SOAS’ Palestine Society held an event on the SOAS steps, often home to protests, vigils and commemorations relating to global struggles. This event was entitled ‘Vigil for Palestinian Martyrs,’ and even before the vigil began it had attracted controversy online from Zionist posters and students at SOAS.

The event page noted that ‘since the beginning of October, 72 Palestinians have been killed, and still counting… this has become a constant element of Palestinian life’. Palestinians ‘have suffered continuously, barely recognised and mentioned in mainstream media, we need to recognise and honour them. The SOAS Palestinian Society have created an event and would love if you would come along to remember those who were mercilessly killed by Israeli occupation forces in the past few months,’ the page further noted.

This recognition of Palestinian suffering in what many commentators have called ‘the Third Intifada,’ which Zionists are calling ‘the Knife Intifada,’ stirred passionate responses from Zionists on Facebook.

The war of comments that ensued on the event page cannot be reported, as the page has since been deleted by the organisers. Likewise, views conveyed by Jewish students present at the vigil cannot be quoted here without linking to an article written by a Zionist group which would place members of the Palestine Society who organised the event at risk.

The article of the aforementioned Zionist group contains a screen-shot of the original event page, detailing the names of some of the organisers. The Editor-in-Chief has made the decision not to publish an article which would attract attention to this piece, as pro-Palestine activists and students repeatedly face surveillance for their online and offline activities which are registered by Zionist groups and the Israeli government and could endanger their ability to enter Palestine in the future.

Amira of the Palestine Society noted that ‘some of the victims have been as young as 2 years old like Rahaf Hassan from Gaza, [and] some as old as 73 (Tharwat Sharawi) from Hebron.’ She described the vigil as a ‘beautiful and sombre’ remembrance of victims of Israeli occupation, and regardless of whether they committed the violent crimes many of them had been accused of, they deserved to be remembered, ultimately, as victims of the occupation.

The vigil involved candles laid out on the steps, spelling ‘Palestine’ in both English and Arabic, in addition to a canvas on which the Society invited members of the audience to write messages of solidarity, which they plan to send to Palestine. Around 150 people were in attendance at the vigil.

However, the silent and respectful atmosphere the Society planned to mark the vigil with was disrupted by what Amira describes as ‘pro-Israeli supporters from in and outside SOAS [deciding] to come along to let us know what they thought of the vigil.’ Members of the Palestine Society allege that some amongst them were ‘physically and sexually assaulted’ by such ‘pro-Israeli supporters’ at the vigil.

Likewise, fellow Society member and SOAS student Joey commented that ‘just 10 minutes after starting, we were disrupted by 4 young men calling us whatever name you’d expect. Islamic terrorists, terrorism apologists, [and] anti-Semites.’ He stressed that ‘we weren’t disrupting anyone,’ alleging that one of the ‘young men’ then described that ‘his solution to the occupation (he put the word between [quotation marks] as he didn’t recognize its existence to begin with) is to kill every ‘terrorist’ on the spot, open him/her up and spread his/her organs everywhere to scare everyone else. He said that if Israel wasn’t a ‘democracy’, this is what he’d support. And this seconds after defending his right to disrupt a vigil because the UK is a democracy too.’

However, the ‘pro-Israeli supporters’ present at the vigil had a different perspective on events, published in the aforementioned article by a Zionist group and on Facebook. Groups such as the Zionist Federation UK (ZF) were quick to post messages of support online and convey their own view on the concept of the vigil.

The response of many pro-Israel supporters questioned why it is acceptable to mourn the loss of Muhannad Halabi, who allegedly killed 2 Israelis and injured 2 more, including an infant. A Tumblr user claiming to be a former SOAS student (under the handle of ‘ainsleyhayess) expressed similar sentiments of disappointment and shock that SOAS students would ‘celebrate the deaths of Jews and honour their murderers.’ Facebook commenters on a ZF post relating to the vigil expressed similar concern about the ‘celebration’ of ‘Palestinian terrorists,’ with ZF stating that ‘for some people Palestinians will always be the victims – and Israel always in the wrong.’

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) released a statement criticising the vigil, placing it within ‘a small but disappointing trend over the last month of Palestine societies using the recent situation in Israel to commemorate murderers and glorify violence,’ claiming that SOAS is a ‘particularly difficult campus’ for Jewish students due to last year’s academic boycott referendum.

Much of this support came from members of the public not related to SOAS, and it is not yet clear whether all of the pro-Israel dissenters at the vigil were students or staff of SOAS. The students interviewed in the aforementioned article are described only as ‘Jewish students,’ rendering it unclear how they are related to the university and the practises of its societies.

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