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Here’s how Sheffielders are leading from the grassroots to stand with Palestine

A coalition of community organisers demanding action are pushing elected officials to act

Screenshot 2023 11 07 at 12 57 23
Image: author's own

On 1 November, a council motion was put forward by Green Party councillors Alexi Dimond and Maleiki Haybe that asked Sheffield Council to call for a ceasefire of apartheid Israel carpet bombing Gaza. Novara Media reported:

The motion, which was proposed by the Greens at a full council meeting on Wednesday and which passed with cross-party backing, also called on the government to stop all arms sales and military aid to Israel, condemned its abstention at the UN on a humanitarian truce, and resolved for the council to join the Sheffield Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.

While the motion was being discussed in the Town Hall – ironically, downstairs from the Nelson Mandela Gallery – almost a thousand people gathered outside demanding that their representatives inside speak up or resign. Students and residents chanted “No amendments, no changes”, and this echoed through the chamber during the five-hour council meeting.

Far from being an event of marginal significance, this motion reflects the success of direct community action and our concrete ability to create useful political pressure. As an organiser myself, I have witnessed how structural and systemic violence debilitates our ability to respond. I have seen how labels and language play a powerful role in framing narratives and often determine where we stand when it comes to matters of injustice.

Sheffield’s communities have shown up in huge numbers as Israel intensifies its bombardment of Gaza. We’ve organised, mobilised, and created spaces of support on our own in this difficult time. The silence of elected representatives has, ironically, been loud and clear. They chose position over principle.

Grassroots efforts

A press release issued by the protest’s organisers – Sheffield Justice Movement, Sheffield Youth for Palestine, the University of Sheffield Palestine Society, and Sheffield Black Lives Matter – made note of the fact that:

This victory is evidence that grassroots communities can build independent power and strength in a meaningful, practical and impactful way to protect their communities in a way that can contribute to practical change when all else fails.

As a coalition, we affirmed that:

Our city councillors must oppose Israeli apartheid, or resign their seats.

We are witness to the onslaught and brutality that Israel is unleashing in Gaza, and we are compelled morally to act and to do what we can to save lives. As I write this piece, the death toll has exceeded 10,000 people, with thousands more injured or displaced.

As the skies above Gaza rain bombs and bullets, mothers mourn their children while many other children find themselves the sole survivors of entire families. Homes are reduced to dust, replaced only by traumatic memories. Hospitals, schools, and essential infrastructure are being targeted. Food and water supplies are fast running out. Francesca Albanese, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories, said:

The oppression and trauma suffered by Palestinian children, half of the Palestinian population under Israeli rule, is a unique stain on the international community.

It is past time to give rise to an authentic grassroots movement. We’re no longer willing to be passive enablers of an apartheid regime. We refuse to heed the complicity of the establishment. The political class across different parties have given a green light to the slaughter of children and innocent civilians, while at the same time activating a full spectrum assault on legitimate dissent.

Who is this a victory for?

Make no mistake, while we are pleased that councillors backed the motion calling for a ceasefire, this is a victory not for Labour councillors but for the activists and organisers who put pressure on the council. As a whole, the British government and the opposition parties are both witness to and complicit in Israel’s apartheid state. That’s why it’s up to those of us who object to speak up and to keep putting pressure on officials.

On 28 October, a senior UN official, Volker Turk, stepped down after stating that the organisation had failed Palestinians. In his final letter, he referred to the genocide of Rohingya and Bosnian Muslims among other atrocities, pointing out that the UN had also stood by while these took place. He also said that:

​​In each case, when the dust settled on the horrors that had been perpetrated against defenseless civilian populations, it became painfully clear that we had failed in our duty to meet the imperatives of prevention of mass atrocities.

He continued:

In the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem, homes are seized and reassigned based entirely on race, and violent settler pogroms are accompanied by Israeli military units. Across the land, apartheid rules.

We cannot allow ourselves to be bystanders to this brutality. This moment demands that we dismantle false narratives and become active participants in the fight against apartheid, racism, and colonialism. It is in this spirit that Sheffield made international headlines when two residents scaled the Town Hall, removed the Israeli flag and replaced it with a Palestinian flag, actively challenging the decision of our elected leaders and so-called representatives of the city who decided to raise it.

For 75 years, Palestinians have been subject to the most brutal colonial violence. For us, as we are witnessing a genocide take place in real-time, we too are having to confront our consciences and reassess our relationship with the structures and systems we are intimately connected to that have enabled this genocide. As we find ourselves in the middle of a mass movement, it is imperative that we simultaneously speak up to end the genocide we are witnessing and, alongside that, dismantle the structures that enable it.

Shezana Hafiz is a community organiser and campaigner for human rights.

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