November 11 is known in Britain as Armistice Day. A two-minute silence is observed nationally to commemorate the end of the First World War in 1918 – at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This year it fell on a Saturday. Ever since Saturday, October 28, when a reported 100,000 pro-Palestinian supporters marched through central London, waving anti-Israel banners, chanting anti-Israel and antisemitic slogans, and calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, mass rallies – although on a smaller scale – have taken place every Saturday in London and in cities across Britain.
Leading up to Armistice Day this year, influential voices throughout the UK, including the prime minister himself, Rishi Sunak, urged the head of the Metropolitan Police to prevent the pro-Palestinian march from taking place, but the police chief confined himself to requesting the organizers to postpone it. They refused, and he maintained that the police do not have sufficient powers under the law to ban an event that does not pose the threat of extreme violence.
In a final gesture of exasperation the then-home secretary, Suella Braverman, penned an article in The Times, deploring the failure of the Metropolitan Police chief to act, and asserting that the force has demonstrated bias in their handling of political rallies. She claimed they favored left-wing groups, citing the pro-Palestinian rallies which she called “hate marches”.
“Terrorists have been valorized,” wrote Braverman. “Israel has been demonized as Nazis, and Jews have been threatened with further massacres.”
A political storm burst around her. There was an instant demand from the Labour Party and its supporters, joined by some in her own Conservative party, for the prime minister to sack her. On November 13 Sunak announced a reshuffle of his Cabinet, and Braverman lost her job.
On Armistice Day, the pro-Palestinian rally went ahead with some 300,000 people taking to the London streets. The marchers took more than four hours to proceed along a route starting in central London and ending at the US embassy on the south bank of the River Thames.
The antisemitic rhetoric had been toned down, if not entirely eliminated, but anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian slogans abounded, many advocating a ceasefire in the Gaza war. There are media reports that the police spotted a few pro-Hamas banner holders, and are trying to identify them. It is illegal to support the terrorist group. But the march proceeded peacefully, and few arrests were made.
A counter-protest, however, by far-right groups, did turn violent. Police battled with aggressive protesters and made more than 90 arrests.
The police and Britain’s counter-terrorism services are well aware that such protest demonstrations are a highly complex operation, requiring detailed organization ranging from assembling vast numbers of supporters and controlling the routes of marches, to the location of rallies, devising slogans to be chanted, and providing banners and placards telling the same story.
On November 7, an exclusive report in The Daily Telegraph revealed that a former Hamas chief, Muhammed Kathem Sawalha, said to have been active in Hamas as recently as 2019, is behind one of the six groups organizing the pro-Palestine protests. Sawalha, 62, came to Britain in the late 1990s and founded the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He was granted British citizenship in the early 2000s. The Daily Telegraph further discovered that, in addition to the MAB, at least two more of the groups that organized the November 11 march have links to Hamas.
On October 27, an exclusive report in The Times revealed that hostile state activity in the UK has been directly linked to the Iranian regime, including the spread of disinformation online and lodging Iranian agents in the crowds attending marches. Following that report, the police announced that Iranian agents are hijacking Britain’s pro-Palestinian rallies.
None of this should have come as a surprise. On October 19, Robin Simcox, head of the independent Counter-Extremism Commission, gave a long and thoughtful address to the highly prestigious Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
Simcox began by endorsing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s description of the Hamas onslaught of October 7 as a pogrom. “Hamas reveled in this bloodshed,” he said. “It was sadism.“
He went on to say that, in the UK, support for Palestinian rights too often translates into rhetoric supportive of Hamas. “Too many in positions of prominence have praised them or their leadership; or sought to rationalize or excuse their acts of terror… The Hamas support network in the UK is entrenched.”
Simcox continued: “What is underappreciated is the scale of Iranian-backed activity in this country; and the extent to which Iran attempts to stoke extremism here.”
In March 2023, the UK government revealed that since 2022, there have been 15 credible threats by the Iranian regime to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals.
The Director General of MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, has said that “Iran projects a threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services.”
Now that the UK government has proscribed Hamas as a terrorist organization, Simcox strongly advocates that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) should be similarly proscribed because of its role in plotting violence. Despite the urging of some government ministers, Britain’s Foreign Office has opposed a ban because it claims it would cause permanent damage to diplomatic relations with Iran.
“The IRGC has operated like a terrorist organization ever since its inception, over four decades ago,” said Simcox. “And yet it is legal, at present, for the IRGC to be, for example, hosted in UK institutions.” He believes that the IRGC is operating Iran’s destabilizing policies in the UK but also worldwide.
In February 2023, acting on police advice, the independent Iran International TV closed its operation in Britain because of threats to its staff from operatives acting for the Iranian regime.
“I cannot believe it has come to this,” said Mahmood Enayat, the station’s general manager. “A foreign state has caused such a significant threat to the British public on British soil that we have to move.”
The channel will continue its output from its Washington DC site. “We refuse to be silenced by these cowardly threats,” said Enayat. “ We will continue to broadcast. We are undeterred.”
Valiant words, and an intrepid attitude – but the truth is that, on police advice, a media outlet operating legally on British soil has succumbed to Iranian threats. That is scarcely a satisfactory position. Some in the police have called for legal clarification and enhanced powers to deal with terrorism and incitement to violence on Britain’s streets. That would seem a step in the right direction. Unmasking, charging, and expelling foreign agents masterminding illegal antisemitic activity would be another.