Editor’s note: On 8th October, following the Hamas attack, Israel launched what we now know was a genocidal attack on the people of Gaza. At the time of writing, six months later, that attack has reduced the majority of Gaza to rubble and been responsible for over 35,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries. The majority of those killed and injured by Israeli forces have been women and children. Since the start of the genocide the International Court of Justice has found ‘plausible evidence’ that Israel is engaging in genocide. The United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Israel’s most right-wing government ever, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has continued to kill and to withhold vital aid to Gaza leading to fears of widespread famine in which, yet again, the main victims will be children. This article, written in October and published in Peace News, sets out the case for demonstrating and writing. Experience now tells us that without the worldwide protests and widespread public revulsion at Israel’s actions the political class and its compliant media would have not only sat back and watched the genocide unfold but justify it as a response to the Palestinian resistance.

With the UK government offering “unequivocal” support for Israel – and Labour’s leadership not far behind it – nonviolent protest could play a critical role in protecting Gaza’s civilians.

By taking to the streets in our hundreds of thousands, flooding MPs’ inboxes with letters and emails and staging savvy nonviolent direct actions, there’s the possibility of setting limits on or even terminating British support for Israeli war crimes and apartheid.

But many people are understandably sceptical.

In response to one recent email sent out by PN encouraging our supporters to use an online Quaker app to message their MPs in opposition to the current attacks, one person replied:

‘Frankly [I] don’t see the point on this one. Our government and opposition have never listened to the people before, why should they now? Years ago, over 2 million people marched against the illegal war and invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair’s government took no notice.’

The belief that ‘over 2 million people marched’ on the 15 February 2003 against the then-looming invasion of Iraq and ‘Tony Blair’s government took no notice’ appears to be very widespread. I for one have heard it from countless people since 2003.

But it’s also not true.

A close call

Indeed, the British anti-war movement came very close to halting British participation in the invasion – which could have derailed the war entirely.

As Milan Rai explains:

‘After the massive anti-war demonstration in London on 15 February, the British government was forced to announce that there would be a parliamentary vote on 18 March on whether to go to war. It wasn’t sure it could persuade a majority of Labour MPs to vote for war, the crucial test.

‘Things came to a head on Tuesday 11 March, when British defence secretary Geoff Hoon told US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a private phone call that the British government was having problems both with Labour MPs and with the public, and that Britain might not be able to take part in the invasion force. Rumsfeld referred to this possibility in a press conference later that day, sparking transatlantic friction.

‘The Sunday Telegraph (16 March 2003) revealed that, on that same day, 11 March, “Mr Hoon’s department [the Ministry of Defence] was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.”’

At this point the British anti-war movement had an opportunity to ‘disconnect’ Britain from the invasion. 

And it’s possible that if the British anti-war movement had done just a few things differently – mounting the same kind of national lobbying effort that had just succeeded in Turkey, for example – Britain could have been knocked out of the invasion force and the US might have been forced to make a history-changing delay.

The lesson should be clear: it’s not that ‘in 2003 we pulled out all the stops and no-one took any notice’, but rather than ‘in 2003 we almost detached the UK from the US invasion of Iraq, and with a better strategy we could probably have succeeded’.

Averting nuclear war

On other occasions peace campaigners have achieved major victories – including averting the world’s second nuclear war.

Again, Milan Rai explains:

‘In 1985, former President Richard Nixon revealed that he had considered using nuclear weapons to end the war in Vietnam. Almost certainly, Nixon went beyond merely considering the option: he actually decided to use them. In August 1969, the United States began a sequence of threats against North Vietnam, beginning with an ultimatum personally delivered by Henry Kissinger, which stated that if by 1 November 1969, there had been no ceasefire by the Vietnamese resistance, we will be compelled with great reluctance to take measures of the greatest consequences. Two nuclear bombs would be dropped on North Vietnam.

‘To demonstrate the sincerity of his intentions, President Nixon ordered a full-scale nuclear alert, raising US nuclear forces to their highest level of alertness, DEF CON 1, for 29 days. On 13 October 1969, one of Nixon’s aides sent a Top Secret memorandum to Henry Kissinger warning that “The nation could be thrown into internal physical turmoil, requiring the brutal suppression of dissension.”

‘That month, the US anti-war movement organised a massive wave of demonstrations and mobilisations culminating in the Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in Washington. President Nixon later wrote in his memoirs, ‘A quarter of a million people came to Washington for the October 15 Moratorium… On the night of October 15, I thought about the irony of this protest for peace. It had, I believe, destroyed whatever small possibility there may have existed for ending the war in 1969.’

‘A key factor in his decision not to drop an atomic bomb on North Vietnam was that after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war. Mobilised public opinion averted the world’s second nuclear war.’

A very slim margin

So in the days, weeks and months ahead, send that email, go to that protest and get together with like-minded people to take action against war crimes and for a just peace.

As Noam Chomsky observed long ago:

‘I’ve personally had the privilege, and it is a privilege, of witnessing [the courage of people in the Global South] a few times, in villages in Southeast Asia and Central America, and recently in the occupied West Bank, and it is astonishing to see.

‘And it’s always amazing – at least to me it’s amazing.

‘I can’t understand it. It’s also very moving and inspiring. In fact, it’s kind of awe-inspiring.

‘Now, they rely very crucially on a very slim margin for survival that’s provided by dissidence and turbulence within the imperial societies, and how large that margin is is for us to determine.’

This article was first published in Peace News in October 2023
Milan Rai is an anti-war activist, author of a number of books and editor of Peace News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *