The intifada comes to London

They are calling it the "Oxford Street Intifada". Every Thursday, a picket forms outside UK high street retailer Marks and Spencer’s flagship store in the capital.

A small but boisterous crowd armed with banners, placards and flags is calling for a boycott of M&S. They claim the department store chain is a sponsor of Israeli suppression of the Palestinians.
It is midday on Saturday and Oxford Street is buzzing. In addition to the usual Thursday event, today’s protest is to mark the third anniversary of the Palestinian uprising – the intifada.

Around Britain – in Manchester, Durham and Glasgow - similar pickets are taking place in what their organisers call a “Day of Action” to boycott Israeli goods.

The group on Oxford Street are members of various left-wing organisations led by campaigners from the Revolutionary Communist Group, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI). Others are members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and the International Solidarity Movement.

From behind barriers, a handful of picketers are supporting a man as he shouts through a megaphone at shoppers emerging from the mall: “Behind the pleasure of buying is the suffering of the Palestinian people. You call yourself a human being?”

In those statements is the basis of this campaign, which has been ongoing since 2000 after beginning in Manchester. The protestors claim M&S supports Israel with about £233m a year in trade and that goods made in the Palestinian territories are wrongly marked “Made in Israel”.

A spokesman for FRFI, Andrew Alexander, 26, says: “It has been a consistent protest in support of Palestine.

“Our main goal is to spread the word about Marks & Spencer’s support for Israel’s aggression,” he said.

Mr Alexander, who is a full-time volunteer for FRFI says recently they have come up against counter-demonstrations from far right groups like the British National Party and the Zionist movement, Betar.

But apart from some low-key shouting matches, there have been no serious clashes.

He says passers-by are mostly apathetic: “We are getting some support. But we do get the occasional shout.”

However, can such agitation from a fringe group really make a difference to a large corporation like M&S?

Mr Alexander is the first to admit that nothing is likely to change anytime soon.

He adds: “In the short term, I think the effect will be very little. But in the long-term there might be some effect.”

Despite his views, it seems the picket is effective enough to embarrass some shoppers.

Nick Mazlan, 42, a tourist from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia had just come out of M&S clutching a bag of goods.

He says: “I agree with them and I feel sympathy for the Palestinians.”

Pointing to the pamphlet handed to him by a protester, which illustrates how Israel has claimed land in the region since its creation in 1948, he says he had not realised how much the country had procured.

“I feel guilty,” he adds.

Mr Mazlan is not the only shopper feeling that way.

A Muslim, Omran, 53, is met head-on by the protests as he and a companion emerge from the store.

The young Muslim woman handing out pamphlets challenges them: “Are you Muslims? Then why support those who are killing your own people?”

Omran says: “If I knew about this (protest against M&S), I wouldn’t have bought from there. I feel bad now.”

His companion is trying to justify his purchases to an elderly Muslim man who has confronted him. “It’s not this store that’s the problem. It’s our leaders,” he says.

But they are stopped from carrying on the debate by community support officers, who are monitoring the protest along with police.

“Palestine, don’t you cry, we will never let you die,” the picketers shout.

A group of veiled women exits M&S onto the street looking distinctly shy. They stop and try to cover up the light green bags with their coats before moving on.

Another woman stuffs her M&S bags into her handbag before striding past the hecklers.

An elderly woman with raised eyebrows and chin held high, stares from a distance. She refuses to speak when asked what she thinks of the demonstration.

She takes a leaflet, turns and strides off.

One man, who refuses to be identified, wonders what the fuss is about: “I was curious about the protest because they’re my favourite retailer so I asked them for a pamphlet.”

Will it change your mind? I ask.

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

Marks & Spencer is very much aware of the resentment of their close relationship with the State of Israel.

On its website, M&S says Israel is just one of the many countries from which it sources its products. While it says its goods are produced according to the “highest ethical standards”, the labelling of products made in the occupied territories is still an unresolved issue.

The company says: “The issue of rules of origin of goods produced in the Palestinian Territories is constantly under discussion by the Palestinian National Authority, the Israeli Government and the EU.

“Until a decision has been made, the EU has agreed directive of customs that goods produced there will be treated as all other Israeli goods.

“We have to keep within the law. Obviously, if the law on labelling changes, we will review our position.”