Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters marched through downtown Washington DC on Saturday in what organizers hoped was the largest US demonstration of its kind since Israel began its bombardment of Gaza after Hamas attacked the country last month.
The crowd waved Palestinian flags, carried posters and chanted slogans during the National March on Washington: Free Palestine, which took place alongside similar events across the US and elsewhere in the world.
Organizers representing or endorsed by dozens of pro-Palestinian groups directed marchers to Freedom Plaza in the nation’s capital before looping past the White House.
“Now is the time to stand with the besieged people of Palestine! Gaza is being bombed by the hour. Its people are denied food, water and electricity by Israel. Tens of thousands more people are likely to die. We must ACT!” the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (Answer) coalition said on its website.
The march, alongside protests in New York, Seattle and other US cities, was part of an intensifying push to demand both a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict and an end to US and western military aid to Israel. Demonstrations in support of Palestine were also staged in London, Berlin, Paris, Ankara and Istanbul with a similar message for both Israel and supportive western governments.
In London, television footage showed large crowds holding sit-down protests blocking parts of the city centre. Protesters, Reuters reported, held “Freedom for Palestine” placards and chanted “ceasefire now” and “in our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians”.
Brian Becker, the director of Answer, told the crowd in Washington that US public support for the Palestinian people had “entered a new era unlike any that had come before it”.
He drew a parallel with the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa four decades ago, saying that when it began the US Congress still considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist. But seven years later, Mandela was the president of South Africa.
Change, Becker said, happens “in leaps and bounds” but not as a result of what happens in Congress or who is the White House, but what happens in communities and on the streets.
“The change comes from us,” he said. “We’re sending a strong message, a very strong message to Joe Biden: if you stand with genocide, we hold you guilty of genocide.”
“When you kill 10,000 Palestinians not because of what they’ve done but because of who they are, when you commit genocide against a people, and destroy a people in whole or in part, you are guilty of genocide and that’s why we’re going to the White House,” Becker added.
Signs of a split between traditional, pro-Israel Democratic party supporters and younger voters, including Arab Americans, over the Israel-Gaza conflict were made apparent in a speech by Nihad Awad, the national director at the Council on American–Islamic Relations.
“The language that President Biden and his party understands is the language of votes in the 2023 elections, and our message is: No ceasefire, no votes,” Awad said, listing states that next year’s presidential election could turn on. “No votes in Michigan, no votes in Arizona, no votes in Georgia, no votes in Nevada, no votes in Wisconsin, no votes in Pennsylvania.”
According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, at least 9,257 people in the territory have been killed – including thousands of children – 23,516 wounded and hundreds of thousands more displaced since Israeli action started almost a month ago. The Israeli attack was in response to a Hamas assault from Gaza that killed 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages. On both sides, most casualties are civilians.
Jewish groups advised against counter-protesting or engaging with the pro-Palestine marchers. Jen Zwilling with the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, emailed members saying that engagement could “increase the potential for violence or antisemitic rhetoric”.
Sponsors of the Free Palestine march included the Palestinian youth movement, the American Muslim Alliance, National Students for Justice in Palestine and the Palestine Right to Return Coalition. It was also endorsed by American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Palestinian American Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Speakers at the march included human rights attorney Noura Erakat, Palestinian writer and activist Mohammed El-Kurd, and figures from Muslim and Arab organizations in the US.
Becker earlier told the Washington Post that he hoped the gathering would be “the largest demonstration in support of the Palestinian people in the history of the United States”.
“People are mortified by the carnage,” he said. “And they are equally mortified that the Biden administration has insisted that there not be a cease-fire.”
Last week, Joe Biden called for a humanitarian “pause” in the bombardment of Gaza but has not demanded a ceasefire.