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Earlier this month, more than a hundred demonstrators gathered at the London School of Economics (LSE). Mostly students, we were there to protest the LSE Students’ Union Debate Society’s hosting of Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador to the UK.
The sounds of drums and chants echoed across campus and throughout lecture halls, as protestors marched to where the event was held. As the crowd gathered, a group of LSE students at the event walked out, signaling their refusal to legitimise the state violence and hatred Hotovely represents.
The protest was loud, energetic, and rightfully outraged. But it wasn’t violent. “We will not tolerate any form of harassment: sexual, verbal, or physical,” said a set of guidelines distributed by organisers. Hotovely spoke for 90 minutes and then left.
As a Palestinian, to my mind, protesting Hotovely’s platforming was not only justified, it stemmed from a moral obligation.
Firstly, in my view, if Hotovely was a British politician, saying she would be on the ultra-right fringes would be an understatement. A former Israeli minister of settlement affairs, she pushed for the expansion of racially segregated settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, contributing to land theft, settler terrorism, environmental destruction, and the violent displacement of Palestinian families who have lived there for generations. A self-described “religious right winger”, Hotovely has incited against Palestinians, claiming they are “thieves of history” with no heritage, and has portrayed Islam as an enemy of Israel.
Hotovely opposes marriage between Palestinians and Jews, and has invited the far right Jewish group Lehava to speak at the Israeli parliament. Lehava desires even further segregation; its members marched through Jerusalem last April, chanting “Death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinian homes.
In her first speech as ambassador, Hotovely denied the Nakba, the violent ethnic cleansing committed by Zionist militias during Israel’s establishment in 1948, which saw the displacement of 80 per cent of the Palestinian population. She has also pushed for the formal annexation of the West Bank while denying citizenship to its millions of Palestinians, entrenching apartheid.
But I did not attend this protest just because of Hotovely’s personal track record. I protested because, to us, an Israeli ambassador represents an apartheid regime which dominates one people for the benefit of another, as affirmed this year by both Human Rights Watch and Israel’s biggest human rights organisation, B’Tselem; because the Israeli ambassador represents a colonial power which displaced my family from our home in Umm Khalid (a town you can no longer find on the map) so settlers could move in; because in the city of Hebron, there are segregated streets where Palestinians are forbidden from walking; because in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp, Palestinians born in Palestine but expelled by Israel have been forbidden from returning home for over 70 years, but British Jews who have never stepped foot in the Middle East can automatically receive Israeli citizenship and live in the refugee’s home.
Despite this, leaders from across the British political spectrum rallied to support Hotovely, defining the protest as violent and antisemitic. Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that “antisemitism has no place in universities in this country”, while Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that Hotovely was “subjected to unacceptable intimidation” at the protest. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer contributed, posting a video of Hotovely leaving, with the protest in the background, saying, “intimidation and threats of violence will not be tolerated”.
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If a loud and raucous protest is deemed violent, then no protest is allowed. Protests are, by definition, loud and raucous. Additionally, none of the politicians clarified what they believed was antisemitic, concluding it was so because the ambassador being protested was Israeli. This rationale suppresses free speech, criticism, and advocacy against Israeli state actions. The message is clear: these politicians will support an advocate of segregation and apartheid, and oppose their own youth standing against such extremist hatred.
In my view, the apartheid regime this Israeli ambassador represents is incompatible with our communities’ ideals, and should not be legitimised in British political spaces. This is not a new idea. Refusing to give a platform to representatives of apartheid was fundamental in the South African anti-apartheid movement. Like the ongoing Palestinian anti-apartheid movement, of which the LSE protest was an example, the South African anti-apartheid movement recognised that the right to freedom of expression is limited when it violates basic principles of democratic society.
I find it deeply troubling that the Debate Society, which invited Hotovely, and the Students’ Union, which approved the event, appear to believe her views are valid and should be tolerated in our discourse. We feel they have shown complete disregard and contempt towards their Palestinian students.
The LSE protest, like the Palestinian struggle overall, is rooted in universal values – freedom, justice, and equality. Hotovely being hosted on campus while politicians condemned our protest proves how Palestinian voices in the UK are systematically delegitimised.
As University College London’s Students for Justice in Palestine said in their statement: “These protests are a clear message to all of London’s institutions – including our own UCL. Do not mistreat Palestinians and expect silence. If you do, you will not just be facing your own neglected students. You will face communities all across the city, speaking in one, united voice.”
Sayf Abdeen is an undergraduate law student at University College London, a Palestinian and one of the student participants at the protest against the Israeli ambassador