Why are the police so ignorant of the law? Their behaviour at the Gaza demos on the past four Saturdays does them no credit. The police are there to uphold the law. If they don’t know it, how can they expect the respect and praise which all decent citizens would like to offer to them?
Hamas is designated as a terrorist organisation and banned in the UK and several other countries (including Australia, Canada, and the USA) In France all pro-Palestinian demonstrations are prohibited as a result of the Hamas pogrom on the 7 October. This means that there are adverse consequences for supporting, or inviting support, for proscribed terrorist organisation.
There is a strong argument for codifying all UK counter-terrorism laws into a single Act of Parliament. It would certainly help the police. However, even without such consolidation, it would be reasonable to expect those who police demonstrations to have read section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the statutory backbone supporting all subsequent additions to the law.
Under section 12(3) it is a criminal offence to “address a meeting and the purpose … is to encourage support for a proscribed organisation or to further its activities”. The maximum sentence if convicted in a Crown Court is 14 years imprisonment.
Under section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006 it is also a serious criminal offence to “publish” a statement (for example in a flyer or pamphlet handed out at a meeting) that glorifies a terrorism act and “could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances.”
Then we have Part III of the Public Order Act 1986, an Act that is meat and drink for the police when dealing with individual and group public disorder. Part III deals with racial hatred, which means “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins”. Plainly that would include all Jews and any other Israelis, and of course citizens of Gaza. The use of threatening words or behaviour, or the possession of racially inflammatory material, are offences if “having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up.”
That incomplete explanation of available powers needs to be read in the context of “existing circumstances”. As with so many situations, context is key. A casual if provocative comment in the pool room of a local pub may be very different in effect from speaking to thousands at a demonstration in favour of killing Jews or driving us out of Israel, or handing out pamphlets to the same effect, or chanting “From the River to the Sea”.
That chant demands a State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the State of Israel and its people. Its history is as a refrain and anthem for terrorist groups calling for Israel’s destruction. Every single person chanting it at a demonstration by now is well aware of its context. Each demonstrator runs the risk of committing one of the criminal offences I have referred to.
More importantly, the police must now understand that they have the power to arrest the leaders of demonstrations, and the distributors of offensive documents; and they should also warn the organisers before the demos begin of the legal risks they are running.
The existence of free speech is a proud boast which we make with pride in our country. However, it is not unconditional. As the political philosopher David Selbourne has repeatedly reminded us, freedoms exist not in a vacuum, but rather in balance with duties as citizens. One of those duties is to obey the law passed by parliament.
There have been calls for strengthening counter-terrorism law in the current maelstrom of issues and horrible events. Such changes are not necessary. It would be a political decision to react to present circumstances by passing yet more laws. The proposals inevitably would face considerable opposition in both Houses of our parliament, where necessity and proportionality are rightly scrutinised with a legislative toothcomb. I hope that I have illustrated that the existing law is sufficient if used well and wisely.
Of course there are other types of law, for example that governing international human rights and war. It is not directly relevant to the conduct and policing of demonstrations; but it is highly material to the judgements inevitably made of nations and their leaders. This is an especially difficult challenge where, as at present, there is an asymmetrical war between a large and murderous terror group which uses hostages as human shields and as bargaining chips, and a well-armed nation state.
We should not lose sight of the continuing horrific crimes being committed by Hamas; and should heed the caution given by many international leaders and diplomats in reminding Israel that, in justly defending herself, the death and wounding of innocent civilians should be a last resort of the necessities of defensive warfare.