‘There’s one ribbon for each of the children killed in Gaza,’ said Zeinab*, gesturing to a large plastic box of green, white, red and black ribbons in the colours of the Palestinian flag. ‘I hope there’s enough,’ she added quietly.
On Friday 3 November, Zeinab’s two children joined around 400 others from across Bristol, southwest England, as part of the city’s School Strike For Palestine – the first UK school strike since Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began last month.
The strike was organized by a collective of local campaigners and parents, supported by Bristol Stop the War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign Bristol and The Green Party.
That same day, hundreds of 17 and 18-year-old school students in East London also boycotted an assembly featuring Labour MP Wes Streeting due to his party’s position on Israel-Palestine.
In Bristol, the children and adults that accompanied them marched noisily to the front door of the council’s City Hall to hand over a handwritten petition, chanting ‘ceasefire now’. They tied 3,457 ribbons to the railings outside the offices and demanded that the city’s Labour MPs Kerry McCarthy, Darren Jones, Karin Smyth and Thangam Debbonaire call for an immediate ceasefire.
Six days on and the death toll in Gaza now stands at over 10,500, including 4,300 children. A further 1,300 children are still missing under the rubble, presumed dead.
One child killed every 10 minutes
‘To the children in Palestine, we hear you, we see you, we love you, we are forever praying for you,’ said one of the young speakers addressing the crowd in Bristol. ‘They are children just like us, our brothers, sisters, cousins, friends.’
One of the handmade placards in the crowd read ‘one child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza’ – a grim statistic from Save the Children. Almost half, 47 per cent, of the people living in Gaza are under 18, making it one of the youngest populations in the world.
The sheer scale of child deaths has reportedly led doctors to coin a new acronym. In an interview on the BBC on 4 November, paediatric intensive care doctor for Doctors Without Borders, Tanya Haj-Hassan, explained that healthcare workers have started using ‘WCNSF’ to mean ‘Wounded Child and No Surviving Family’.
‘We want to save Palestine, that’s why we are missing school. Children should play,’ said seven-year-old Lara*, gripping a placard while running around with other kids. Her mum Megan* explained that she wrote a letter to her daughter’s school headteacher informing them of her absence but was still waiting for a reply.
Many of those gathered in Bristol were angry that the opposition Labour Party had not called for a ceasefire despite resignations and pressure from many within the party. When pressed on the issue by Sky News journalist Kay Burley on 25 October, Bristol MP Darren Jones admitted that the party’s reluctance to do so was strategic.
‘We hope that we might be in government next year, so what I say today could have implications for what a Labour government might have to do,’ he said.
‘It’s about doing what we can’
On the day of the strike Zeinab took her son and daughter to school for the first part of the morning and told their teachers that they would probably not return for the rest of the day and why.
‘Being here is about showing solidarity and to try to pressurize politicians to cease fire now’, she said. ‘The children want to be here because schools and refugee camps are being bombed, children are being killed. The numbers are staggering – it’s about doing what we can.’
None of the parents I spoke to at the strike wanted to use their real names for fear of reprisals against them or their children. Zeinab said someone had shouted out of their car window calling her a ‘terrorist’ when she was walking wearing a hijab and a keffiyeh scarf – worn as a symbol of solidarity with Palestine.
Aisha* brought her 11-year-old daughter to the strike and took the day off work. She said that she is frightened by the uptick in reports of Islamophobia and racism in the UK among people emboldened by what the Conservative government, Labour opposition and mainstream media are saying. An increase in antisemitism has also been reported.
Too complicated for children?
On some neigbourhood social media pages where the strike was publicized, there were demands that admins take posts down and incredulous comments that organizers were ‘dragging’ children into a subject that was too complicated for them to understand.
Aisha disagrees. ‘Our children are seeing what’s happening on social media, coming here is an outlet for them to express themselves. At school they have to remain neutral even though they can’t understand it because with Ukraine, things were completely different.’
And despite, or perhaps because of, the increasingly polarized views of the British public, Aisha says that she’s never seen such a surge of support for Palestine, even among people who previously weren’t interested.
Bristol’s school strike is growing support. A WhatsApp group for the campaign has nearly 600 members with more joining every day and their actions have inspired others. In Harrow, northwest London, another school strike has been announced for this Friday with more places around the country also expected to join.
Organizers have promised to be back outside Bristol City Council on Friday 10 November and plan to continue every week until a ceasefire is implemented.
*Names have been changed
Get the background to what’s happening in Palestine and Israel from our July-August magazine available from the Ethical Shop.