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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Moffatt
Chris Cole & Virginia Moffat at Downing St, by Pat Gaffney

On 29th December 2023, my husband Chris (Cole) and I went to Downing Street with two bottles of red poster paint. When we arrived, we waited for the crowds to part, approached the fence, sprayed paint, marked our hands and made handprints on the railings and the pavement. We then stood with two placards ‘Blood on your hands. Ceasefire Now’, and ‘Stop the Slaughter’, as we read the names of dead children killed by Israel and Hamas and the reading of the Holy Innocents:


“A voice is heard in Ramah,weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”  Matthew 2:18

Our action came after witnessing the first two months of relentless slaughter of innocent Palestinians that we had been witnessing on social media and TV since Hamas’ October 7th attack.  While we have protested wars for decades - the cruelty and brutality of the onslaught of Gaza has been unprecedented. The deliberate withdrawal of food, water and utilities, the bombing of hospitals, the corralling of civilians into ‘safe’ regions where they were then bombed, the murder of so many children and targeting of journalists and hospital workers, the Tik Toks from soldiers mocking civilians and boast of war crimes has been horrifying to watch.  Even more horrifying has been the failure of the Western world to stand up for Palestine, and the complicity of our government in Israel’s actions, repeatedly failing to vote for a ceasefire at the UN and continuing to sell arms.


Before Christmas I wrote several emails and tweets to Rishi Sunak and my MP. They never replied. I attended two of the national demonstrations for Palestine in London. Nothing changed. So, it was an easy decision to agree to an action at Downing Street, calling on our government to change course. And my resolve was strengthened after watching Rev Dr Munther Isaac’s powerful sermon, ‘Christ among the rubble’, in which he condemned Western hypocrisy on Gaza and asked Christians to act.


Before going to London, we had agreed we would call it off if a ceasefire was agreed. But the remorseless bombardment of Gaza continued, so we went ahead.


As expected, we were quickly arrested and taken to Charing Cross Police Station where the desk sergeant was very surprised to see two middle aged white people in the back of the van. He seemed to need reassurance from the arresting officers that they really had due cause to arrest us. They made it clear they had, so he walked us over to the ‘cage’ outside the door, the waiting area where arrestees are held until taken upstairs. There was someone already there, and he apologised that due to cuts he didn’t have enough staff to process us both at the same time. Chris had to wait, and I was taken up a long slope to custody. The desk sergeant was very apologetic about lack of staff, and we chatted about government cuts to services and how rubbish they were.  He was very friendly and helpful and got through the bureaucracy as quickly as possible (complaining about the new computer system which of course was full of glitches). Everyone we encountered was equally pleasant, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have been so friendly if I’d been a young brown man. Perhaps the desk sergeant might have been, as he laughed when giving my equal opportunities information, I said ‘White British, basically all the privileges,  and he did bend over backwards to emphasise the Met’s latest efforts to reassure women they’ll be safe.


While I was having my fingerprints, DNA and photo taken, Chris was brought up, so I was able to say hi to him. It took ages because the computer kept smearing and the red paint didn’t help, but eventually I was taken to my cell. It was large, clean and bright and there was a thin plastic mattress and pillow on the bench. I was able to lie down and read my book and Bible which they’d let me keep and a welfare person provided me with a blanket so I felt relatively comfortable.


The first few hours passed quite quickly – I read, had some tasteless vegetarian food and dozed a bit. My book about the intelligence of animals, particular octopi, was a fascinating read so that helped. When I took a break from it, I read some Psalms and some of the Christmas Gospels and prayed for people in Palestine. It’s probably the most praying I’ve done in a long time, and I found it very helpful. I also thought a lot about Palestinian prisoners, particularly the activist Ahed Tamimi who was imprisoned as a teenage for slapping an Israeli soldier after her cousin was injured and the soldier had slapped her. She was recently rearrested on faked up charges and released in the first hostage exchange and her strength and determination has always inspired me. I also remembered the image I’d seen of a recently released Palestinian prisoner who had been treated so badly that in 3 months his body was a gaunt skeleton and he looked about ten years older.  I remembered of all those who couldn’t escape their situation including the hostages Hamas is holding. I felt exceptionally lucky to know I was being treated well and would be out soon.


At four I made the mistake of asking what the time was, as then I began to be aware of how slow time was passing. The person on welfare check didn’t know when we’d be interviewed, and so I began to feel a little bit fretful, wandering up and down to stretch my legs, before settling back to read again.


Eventually at around five, two young women came in to say they’d be interviewing me. They too were very pleasant and not too frustrated by my mostly ‘no comment’ answers. I told them the paint was poster paint, and that it was just us who acted. And at the end, when asked if I had anything else to say, that I was there because I couldn’t sleep thinking about Palestine and I wanted my government to take action against genocide.

Then it was back into the cell where I could hear someone talking to Chris, so realised he was nearby. (I discovered afterwards he was next door and he’d already worked out where we’d be because he’d heard them saying the cell numbers in the van). I didn’t hear him come back  from his police interview so I became fretful again. Time passed, 6, 6,30 and no sign of being let out. But at last they came for me and by 8pm we were both out, which was when we discoverd that we’d got a good amount of press coverage. Our friend Pat had taken some great pictures, and by chance a press photographer had also been there. The messages ‘blood on your hands’ and ‘stop the slaughter’ had been clearly seen and understood. There were also pictures of Rishi Sunak leaving Downing Street by the back door, and although it was unlikely that was due to our action, he would have surely known it was taking place and what it said.


Of course, one tiny action by two people is unlikely to change the mind of a government. And sadly, despite our efforts and the efforts of millions marching, writing to politicians, boycotting, blockading and taking legal action round the world, Israel continues to bombard Gaza regardless. The situation remains bleak and yet, not without hope. The day of our action South Africa launched its ICJ genocide case against Israel, and since then we’ve seen more and more governments ready to condemn Israel, and more and more people out on the streets. So we hope our protest has given encouragement to others, that perhaps some Palestinians saw the images and found them comforting, and we believe it’s provided an opportunity to keep talking about our government’s complicity in the genocide.


This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I went to Palestine, to the city of Nablus in the West Bank (under Israeli military occupation) for a holiday, from September 18th to October 6th – one day before the Hamas attack and the ensuing genocide Israel is carrying out against the trapped people of Gaza.


I lived in Nablus from June 2012 to August 2013, spending the first two months teaching music at summer schools as part of an initiative by a charity called Music Harvestand then as an Arabic student at An-Najjah University in Nablus during my year abroad from a degree at SOAS university.


Nablus is a beautiful city between two mountains, Gerizim (home of the Samaritans) and Aybal. The people are so friendly, hospitable, and generous, and I don’t think I have met such patient people either. We were really looked after. Our neighbours became our second family there, opening their home to us whenever we wanted to come. Our whole flat was furnished by another friend who called people he knew to ask if they had anything spare.


The trip in September was the first time I had been in ten years. I was nervous about the trip – Israel’s violence in the West Bank had steadily escalated since May 2021, when they had launched their last major attack on Gaza. At the time, Palestinians had united across the West Bank, Israel (‘1948 lands’ as Palestinians say) and Gaza in a general strike, and a number of small militant resistance groups had emerged. Israel, in turn, had targeted these groups, who had launched attacks on Israeli military bases and soldiers.


The result – in around 2 years, around 60 people had been killed in Nablus by Israeli military raids and operations. Around 240 had been killed, before October 7, in the West Bank. Most of these were bystanders, caught when Israel targeted the young resistance fighters, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties. Posters of these young people are everywhere, testifying to their memory and a city in mourning for those who died trying to resist Israeli crimes against their people.


So I was nervous of the violence, amongst other things. But once I was there, I was so glad to be back. Nablus, like all of Palestine, is under threat. My friend and I stayed with a friend and his family. We visited families we had known – everyone was so happy to see us, and prepared feasts for us. Our old teacher and his wife made musakhan, one of my favourite Palestinian dishes, and more. He is from Jenin, which has seen devastating Israeli violence in recent months.


I went to a Catholic Mass with a Muslim friend of mine for the first time in Nablus. The church was the church of St Justin – born in Nablus in 110 and martyred in 165. An ancient church. The priest was Spanish, I think. It was fascinating to observe the Catholic Mass in Arabic. My friend had never been to a Mass and wanted to come with me. He turned to me when they did the collection asking why they were collecting money, and I said they do that for the church, and he gave a donation. We went to have coffee after the Mass and spoke to the priest and a couple from the congregation, a very elderly man and a woman, who thought me and my friend were married, asked us to come back every week! I said we couldn’t. I wanted to stay and ask more about the Nablus Christians, but didn’t get the chance to return the following Sunday.


I also visited Jacob’s Well – the well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman is under the church, where you can go and drink the water. This Greek Orthodox church is close to Balata refugee camp, the biggest camp in the West Bank, which suffers horrific levels of Israeli violence on a regular basis. The Israeli army accompanies settlers who come to visit a tomb nearby called Joseph’s tomb, and the army often raids Balata camp at the same time, often injuring or even killing residents, or raiding homes and smashing everything up. Someone I knew was killed a few months ago. He had worked at the Jaffa centre in Balata when I was there, where I taught violin as a volunteer. The army killed him in November when they raided and he fought back with other residents.


The priest at Jacob’s Well is in his eighties and replaced the last priest, who was murdered by Israeli settlers in 1979. I heard that they killed him next to the well with an axe after warning him he needed to vacate because the site was rightfully theirs. The current priest has painted biblical scenes which cover the walls of the church, and in one of them, he depicted the late priest with the settler raising his axe over him, as though in a biblical scene. The doorman is Muslim and local, and he was the same as there ten years ago. He said there had been escalating violence in the last few years, with tear gas fired into the grounds, and the priest tended to call him whenever something happened, as the Palestinian Authority won’t help when it comes to violence by Israelis. I told him my sister was having a baby soon; he gave me some water from the well, which had been blessed for the baptism.


What has happened to Palestine and the Palestinians was a horrific injustice which continues. They should never have been forced out of their homes in 1948 - what gave Britain the right to sign their land away?


75 years on, Christians need to stand with the people of Palestine and call out the ethnic cleansing, as well as Israel’s apartheid system and occupation.


Most of all, Christians need to unequivocally call for an immediate ceasefire and call what is happening to Gaza what it is – genocide, collective punishment, and the result of Zionist ideology, which has not been critiqued properly by Christians here.


The failure of the collective West to impose any boundaries on Israel, especially since the Oslo Accords in 1993, has led to the genocide we are witnessing now. Acting as though it is okay to ignore Palestinian rights, or that it’s just a given that they don’t have rights, whereas the Israelis do, is not an okay stance for Christians - or any human being - to take.



  • Writer's pictureLondon Catholic Worker

The most significant thing was the heat. There’s no shade outside Lunar House beside one straggly tree some distance from the entrance, so the sun – on one of the first of what will be many uncomfortably hot days this year – was shining directly both on those of us vigilling, and on the dozen or so people waiting outside for a friend or relative to come out. It is good to have someone waiting for you, because then you can be sure that someone will know if you’ve been detained and are not allowed to walk out again. Those whom the Government does not regard as having a right to be present in the UK, and who are known to the Home Office but are not in detention, are often obliged to report to Lunar House or another building monthly, biweekly, or weekly. At any of these regular visits, they could be detained, and since a couple of weeks ago – timed handily for the recent local elections in the hope that at least a few Tory councillors might keep their seats – the Home Office has begun a new wave of detentions in preparation to deport refugees, against their will, to Rwanda. While we were there, only those who had arrived irregularly since January 2022 were eligible. At the time of writing, all those with previous failed asylum applications are eligible as well, so thousands of people living in this country are now under the continuous threat of being forcibly detained for an indeterminate period in order to be sent to an impoverished, authoritarian country they may know nothing about, thousands of miles from Britain and, probably, from the country they were born in. So, when you report to Lunar House, it is good to take someone with you. It is not a building designed to make you feel comfortable.


Lunar House, Croydon

We had come from the European Catholic Worker gathering, and were a mix of nationalities, but mostly resident in the UK. Some of us held signs and placards we’d made the previous day, which were overwhelmingly positively received – several people asked to take photos of or with them. Meanwhile, others distributed leaflets at the door informing people about the Rwanda plan, mitigating the danger of people being caught entirely by surprise and pressured into agreeing to things without the presence of lawyers, which seems to be the Home Office's favoured tactic. The leaflets, produced by Action Against Detentions and Deportations, carry this information and phone numbers for law firms and activist groups in the hope that detainees will then be able to contact people who can support them. Perhaps half of those going in accepted a leaflet, and fewer stopped to chat; some will have known they were not at risk, some will have assumed we were Home Office employees, and others will simply have wanted to get a stressful experience over with as soon as possible. Those we did talk to were unanimously happy to meet friendly faces outside the building.


About four policemen were stationed outside the front of Lunar House all day, presumably in case our leafleting should inexplicably turn violent. Two stayed in the car, and two – clearly very bored – spent a long time talking to us. They were very insistent on asking exactly how we were organised and by whom, which they insisted was just by way of making friendly conversation. Whether this reflects a lack of talent for intel-gathering or merely a lack of talent for conversation, I’ll leave for you to judge. Their tendency to stand between us and those we were giving leaflets to could similarly be put down to a lack of spatial awareness sadly common in the force. Certainly, when questioned, neither of them had the first idea what the Rwanda plan, which they were there to help implement, actually was. Still, their presence was no more futile than any other project of our border system, the purpose of which is precisely to create needless difficulties for particular people in order to clearly define who our country is for. Certainly, the continuous police presence, the two or three security staff at every entrance and exit, and the gigantic tower block itself cannot be cheap, but hostility is important enough to the Home Office to justify the expense. If we provided anyone with useful information our presence was worthwhile, but it was worthwhile too if all we did was counteract that hostility with our solidarity. I always come away from anything involving the Home Office feeling deflated – faced directly with the whole monstrous infrastructure of hate our country has created for itself, you ask yourself what use you could possibly be in resisting it. But, of course, that’s what they want you to think. If nothing else, we can choose to be there and wait – vigil – with those who are forced to wait there, and make ourselves part of a slightly better place.


[If you would like to wait there yourself, a continuous presence is needed outside Lunar House to carry on the leafleting – get in touch if you can help.]


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