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War on Gaza: What happened to the right to fly Palestine flags in east London?

How a viral video of two men hitting each other with ladders highlighted the independence of Tower Hamlets
A trio of Palestinian flags fly next to a Bangladeshi flag from private premises in Tower Hamlets, east London (MEE/Simon Hooper)

Amid leaden March skies in the UK, bus passenger Faisal Alam looks up at a Palestinian flag flying at the 309 stop in Langdon Park, east London. Wearing a cream thobe and brown skullcap, Alam said the flag symbolises many things, most notably, solidarity with the Palestinian people.

"They are suffering a genocide, and no one is doing anything to protect them in Gaza," he said. "It's a small gesture, but one that I hope shows the Palestinian people that we have not forgotten them."

For the past six months, since Israel began its current bombardment of the Gaza Strip after the Hamas attack of 7 October, thousands of people have taken to the streets of London to demand a ceasefire.

Across the UK, communities have shown their backing for Palestine, from producing murals to protesting outside companies which profit from Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

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In the borough of Tower Hamlets and other neighbourhoods of east London, residents and activists from the newly formed Palestine Solidarity Network have raised Palestinian flags on lampposts and other street installations, outside shop fronts and in their front windows.

But it has proved controversial for those who support Israel. And one incident especially, caught on video, has received global attention.

At lunchtime on 8 December last year, the bus stop in Langdon Park, in Poplar, became a focal point for conflict. A man, wearing a hoodie decorated with medieval Crusaders and the Cross of St George, the symbol of England, tried to remove a Palestinian flag using two ladders propped on top of an industrial bin.

A still from the video in which a man, trying to remove a Palestine flag is knocked off his ladder by a motorist (X/@CrimeLdn)

As he did so, a passing motorist stopped his car, got out and kicked away the giant bin, leaving the man grappling with the lamppost to break his fall.

Safely on the pavement, he grabbed one of his sets of steps and threw it at the driver: they then traded blows, before trying to swat each other with the ladders. Eventually, the man wearing the cross of St George fled after a second passer-by intervened against him.

A police spokesman said that they "were called by the man who had the ladder kicked out from under him. He was seen by paramedics. The other two men had left the area but officers are working to identify them."

Why Tower Hamlets is different

However, in the past few weeks, the flag at the 309 bus stop has gone, as have others on nearby lampposts.

Indeed, the only reminder of the controversy is some graffiti on the bus shelter at the stop, which carries the slogan "Falastin Hurra", Arabic for "Free Palestine". There are also drawings of ladders: one on the lamppost shows a stick man falling off, next to the slogan "Templars, get in the Thames", a reference to the Crusaders.

For Hai Lin, who works in the area and describes himself as a "neutral observer", flying the flag of Palestine is no different to when Ukrainian flags appeared across the UK after the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Pro-Palestine graffiti on the lamppost and a nearby wall (right) recalls the incident (MEE)

"If people are passionate about human rights, then good for them. I see no issue with this," he said. "Why should Palestine be any different?"

Tower Hamlets has its own distinctive character. The 2021 national census recorded the population of the borough as 310,300, which had increased by 22 percent since the previous census a decade earlier and was the highest rise in any area in England or Wales. Tower Hamlets also has the highest proportion of Muslims in the UK, at 39 per cent, alongside some of the highest rates of poverty in the UK.

Support for international causes is nothing new in the area, said Hajera Begum, a lifelong resident and activist with the Bangladeshi campaign group Nijjor Manush.

"For a long time, there has been a type of organic internationalism in Tower Hamlets and the East End because of the very international character of its population. It's come about for several reasons, including the refugees and migrants who arrived throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, along with the political traditions that have been practised here, and the forms of organisation that these people created here."

Begum said that traditionally, socialist and communist groups in the East End were central to cultivating socialist internationalism, especially between World War One and World War Two.

Examples of pro-Palestine street art across east London, some of which have been removed or defaced (MEE/Areeb Ullah/Simon Hooper)

At the same time, seafaring workers and maritime militiamen from Bengal, known as lascars, settled in Tower Hamlets and developed their own social welfare organisations.

"Nowadays," said Begum, "we'd often think about how Bengali populations here have settled and built mosques which can - although with increasing difficulty, given state repression over the last few decades - provide a base for congregants to develop a pan-Islamic solidarity, whether against the Iraq war or for Palestine."

But for other residents such as Linda, who only gave her first name, the "flags were getting too much. If we chose to raise the St George flag, we'd get in trouble. How is that fair?"

Mayor Rahman under pressure

The flags have created a political headache for Tower Hamlets' embattled mayor, Lutfur Rahman.

The former Labour politician, who now stands for the Aspire party, was elected mayor in May 2022. He previously held the post from 2010 to 2015 but was found guilty of electoral fraud in April 2015 and banned from standing for public office for six years.

Tower Hamlets Mayor Luftor Rahman has come under pressure from the media, pro-Israel supporters and rival politicians to remove the flags (Creative Commons)

In January, the pressure group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) sent a letter to the London Metropolitan Police, claiming that the flags and signs of Palestinian support in the borough were offensive and that they should take action.

Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI, said: "Large Palestinian flags have been hung on numerous lampposts. While it appears that the council did not give permission to display the flags, it has refused to remove them."

Pro-Israeli activists like Yoseph Haddad also travelled to parts of Tower Hamlets to deface murals, including one that pays tribute to Al Jazeera's Palestinian journalist Wael Dahdouh, who lost several members of his family, including his wife, children and a grandchild, during Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

Transport For London, which has responsibility for London's major roads, has been taking down flags since October and said it was "removing these swiftly where they are found to be attached to TfL infrastructure".

The Daily Mail, which has largely supported Israel's war on Gaza, in March called Tower Hamlets "London's little Palestine" and alleged that Jewish residents were being "hounded" out of the borough. 

In late February, former minister for London Paul Scully said that some neighbourhoods of London and other cities, including Tower Hamlets, were "no-go zones" because of their large Muslim populations. He apologised for his comments the next day after widespread criticism.

Scully's comments coincided with the government calling in commissioners to investigate how Rahman's administration awarded contracts and made senior job appointments. 

The investigation is being led by Sir John Jenkins, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange.

His appointment was criticised in a letter from Jewish and Muslim community organisers, academics and local politicians that was sent to Michael Gove, the government minister who appointed Jenkins, alleging that he had endorsed social media posts that were "Islamophobic", "defend Islamophobia" or used "propaganda against Muslims".

'Solidarity for Gaza'

In March, Local Government Lawyer reported that the council would take the flags down on residential roads, for which it has responsibility, after UKLFI warned that it would take court action against the council under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

Rahman said: "I understand that those who have erected these flags across the borough have done so in line with our strong tradition of solidarity and I reject that they are symbols of division.

"They are symbols of solidarity and sympathy for those enduring extreme suffering in Gaza. We must not forget that over 30,000 people have now been killed, 70 per cent of whom are women and children. The flags certainly had an impact and made residents' views clear.

Palestine flags have been flown across London, from canal barges to lampposts (MEE/Areeb Ullah)

"Although these flags are an understandable expression of solidarity, I now feel they are being used to unfairly attack the people of the borough and further the Islamophobic narrative."

A council spokesperson told Middle East Eye that an initial decision had been taken to keep the flags up to ensure community cohesion. In contrast, graffiti, posters or flags that  promoted hate were removed immediately.

The decision had been reached in liaison with the Metropolitan Police and the council's Tension Monitoring Group, which shares information on sources of potential tension for community groups and includes police and faith representatives from both Muslim and Jewish community organisations. 

"However, the increasing focus on the issue, coupled with some unfair and divisive sentiment about our borough and its communities in recent weeks, has meant that the issue of flags has become part of a wider negative discourse used by some to misrepresent Tower Hamlets and our residents," the spokesperson said.

One activist, who asked to remain anonymous, was dismayed by the decision. "We lasted this long and made our point clear. Tower Hamlets supports Palestine and remembers the Palestinians during their time of need," they said.

"Lutfur Rahman has taken down the flag but ultimately we know that he had no choice. Rahman set the trend 10 years ago when he chose to fly the Palestinian flag over Tower Hamlets Town Hall."

For some, the flag issue has given an insight into Tower Hamlets. Ashraf Hoque, an associate professor at University College London, has researched the politics of British Bangladeshis in the area.

He said the borough has always exercised its political will when it feels politically betrayed by the Labour Party, including when incumbent Labour MP Oona King, who backed the Iraq war, was voted out in favour of independent George Galloway in 2005, and the repeated support by voters for Rahman.

"Diaspora groups are always couched within a transnational social and political sphere, and the current Muslim community in the borough is no exception," he said.

"The display of solidarity towards the plight of the Palestinians is understood as a religious obligation, both in defiance of oppression and the desire for justice and a better world." 

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