Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Gaza protests are proof of a new Belfast

Pro-Palestinian protesters who attended a demonstration in Belfast city centre. Picture by Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Pro-Palestinian protesters who attended a demonstration in Belfast city centre. Picture by Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Over the past six weeks, as the death toll in Gaza has climbed to more than 2,000, Ireland and the UK have seen the emergence of a new protest movement.

In Belfast alone, we have seen at least four demonstrations involving upwards of a thousand people.

Elsewhere across the north there have been dozens of well-supported protests organised to express solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation and military onslaught.

Sadly – but predictably – some prominent local figures, classing themselves as friends of the Israeli State, have been working overtime to drive the public into sectarian camps over this issue.

But, as anyone who has attended any of the demonstrations knows, these have been among the most diverse protests in Belfast's history.

In a city with a long history of sectarian division, and one that in recent months has seen a wave of horrific attacks on recent migrants, those of us involved in the protests are proud they have involved young and old, people from all religious faiths and none, recent immigrants and long-time residents, trade unionists, health workers and conscientious people from both sides of the sectarian divide.

In short, the emerging movement embodies everything that is best in a changing city and holds up a mirror to those who would drag us backward into renewed polarisation and conflict.

The scale and the cross-community character of the response reflects the deep revulsion that people across the world feel at the recklessness of Israel's assault and the impunity granted to it by the so-called international community.

It may serve some of Israel's defenders to cast this all in sectarian terms, but I read this is a sign of the desperation they feel at the spectre of old barriers being broken down.

Perhaps, in standing up for Palestine, we are also laying the possibilities for that 'new' Belfast so often talked about in slick promotional brochures, but so seldom seen at ground level.

Brian Kelly is Reader in History at Queen's University, Belfast. The opinions expressed here are his own

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