Three women were today found guilty of a terror offence for displaying images of Hamas paragliders at a pro-Palestine march a week after terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people in Israel.
Heba Alhayek, 29, and Pauline Ankunda, 26, attached images of paragliders to their backs with tape, while Noimutu Olayinka Taiwo, 27, stuck one to the handle of a placard.
The trio displayed the images on October 14, 2023, just seven days after militants from Hamas used paragliders to enter Israel from Gaza on October 7 before randomly murdering civilians.
They were charged under the Terrorism Act with carrying or displaying an article to arouse reasonable suspicion that they are supporters of banned organisation Hamas, which they denied.
They were found guilty today following a two-day trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court. But the judge said he did not believe the women were true Hamas supporters and let them off with a 12-month conditional discharge.
Heba Alhayek, 29, and Pauline Ankunda, 26, had images of Hamas paragliders taped to their backs
Noimutu Olayinka Taiwo, 27, had an image of a terrorist paraglider attached to the handle of a placard
Alhayek was today convicted alongside the two other protesters of an offence under the Terrorism Act
Prosecutors successfully argued it was ‘no coincidence’ the defendants were displaying the images so soon after the attack. Pictured is Ankund
Giving his verdict, Deputy Senior District Judge Tan Ikram said: ‘Seven days before the protest, Hamas went into Israel with what was described by the media as paragliders. A reasonable person would have seen and read that.
‘I do not find a reasonable person would interpret the image merely as a symbol of freedom. I want to be clear, there’s no evidence that any of these defendants are supporters of Hamas, or were seeking to show support for them.’
Handing the trio a 12-month conditional discharge, Mr Ikram said he had ‘decided not to punish’ the defendants.
‘Each of you stands convicted of a terrorist offence,’ he continued. ‘There is nothing to suggest the police of their own volition were going to take any action.
‘You’ve not hidden the fact you were carrying these images. You crossed the line, but it would have been fair to say that emotions ran very high on this issue.
‘Your lesson has been well learnt. I do not find you were seeking to show any support for Hamas.’
The trio had argued they were carrying the image of a standard ‘parachute emoji’, and that such flying-related images were common in Palestinian art as symbols of ‘liberation and peace’ long before the bloody Hamas attacks.
Under cross-examination, the Met’s acting Detective Sergeant Michael Beskine admitted his team had not done any research into possible alternate meanings, instead accepting the interpretation of a ‘rightwing’ social media account called ‘Harry’s Place’, which first posted photos of the trio.
The original ‘Harry’s Place’ post on X, formerly Twitter, had claimed sarcastically: ‘Hamas sent terrorists on paragliders to a rave in Israel where they massacred the civilians so it’s important to tape images of paragliders to your clothes at a pro Palestine demonstration.’
Police then gave the operation the unofficial moniker ‘paraglider girls’ as they hunted for the trio, the court heard, with the officer giving evidence that the pro-Hamas interpretation was so ‘obvious’ it did not require further work.
Alhayek is visible on the left of this image – one of several CCTV grabs circulated by the Met
Footage showed squads of Palestinians on suicide missions swooping over the border on the aircraft
Giving evidence in defence of the trio, veteran Guardian journalist and human rights campaigner Victoria Brittain said images of balloons, birds, kites and parachutes were popular images in the context of a Palestinian desire to ‘fly away’ from entrapment in Gaza.
She also said she had seen children in Gaza playing with parachute-like domes of fabric, and pointed to a world record set in 2011 in the territory in which 3,520 children fluttered 176 parachutes.
The correspondent also pointed to possible thematic links with the Banksy artwork Flying Balloon Girl, which was painted on a West Bank wall and shows a girl being lifted away by a bunch of balloons, as well as a popular Palestinian cartoon character called Handala.
Asked by Mark Summers KC, for Alhayek and Ankunda, about what ‘an informed, politically aware observer’ on the march would have made of the image, she responded: ‘It would have been [interpreted as] another typical Palestinian symbol of flight and escaping prison.’
Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, a former EU envoy to the Palestinians also gave evidence about a controversial flight he undertook off the coast of Gaza City in July of last year.
He told the court that the flight was intended to urge freedom and equal rights for Palestinians, although at the time the ‘stunt’ was condemned as a ‘propaganda tool’ by Israel.
After the Metropolitan Police launched a social media appeal to find them over the outcry, Alhayek and Ankunda handed themselves in to Croydon Police Station, the court heard earlier.
Brutal shootouts were seen taking place as Hamas terrorists descended on Israel via land, sea and air
Hamas is banned as a terror organisation in the UK and the trio’s actions were widely condemned online amid concern over the tenor of pro-Palestine protests occurring in the UK.
In a police interview, the pair initially claimed someone at the demonstration ‘who was not known to them’ had stuck the images to their backs, before admitting they had attached them themselves.
When she was arrested later, Taiwo claimed to have been handed the placard and not paid proper attention to the ‘blurry image’.
‘She had not paid attention to what was fixed to the placard as it was a blurry image. She said she believed it to be a symbol of liberation and peace’, prosecutor Brett Weaver said.
Reacting to today’s guilty verdict, the Crown Prosecution Service said displaying the images amounted to the ‘glorification of the actions’ of Hamas.
The terrorist assault on October 7 sparked a massive response, with Hamas officials saying more than 28,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began incessant bombing raids.
Top officials from Israel, the US, Qatar and Egypt met today to make plans for another ceasefire as international pressure mounts for a truce in the territory.
CIA director William Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met Egyptian officials in Cairo, according to Al-Qahera News – which has links to Egyptian intelligence.
A proposal thrashed out with Israeli negotiators in Paris late last month has gone back and forth, but is yet to come to fruition after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed his forces would achieve ‘total victory’ in Gaza.
Buildings lie in ruin in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. This picture was taken from Israel today
Hamas officials meanwhile told reporters that they ‘are awaiting the outcome of the Cairo meetings, and Hamas is open to discussing any initiative that achieves an end to aggression and war’.
The quest for a ceasefire comes after the United States and the United Nations warned Israel against carrying out a ground offensive into Rafah, the southernmost Gaza city where more than a million Palestinians are trapped.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer broke cover today to defend his handling of a new Labour party anti-Semitism row sparked by comments made by the party’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election.
Sir Keir this afternoon faced the cameras for the first time since Azhar Ali was revealed to have claimed Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas’s October 7 massacre.
Party factions were at war today over the belated decision to cut ties with Mr Ali, with left-wingers claiming he was given preferential treatment.
Sir Keir’s top team finally withdrew backing from Ali last night, more than 24 hours after it was revealed he claimed Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas’s October 7 massacre.
But they only acted after being informed of further allegations by the Daily Mail, having previously tried to weather the storm by insisting his apology on Sunday night was enough.
Sir Keir’s team had rallied behind the councillor – claiming he had simply fallen for an ‘online conspiracy theory’ and that it was ‘out of character’ for him to be anti-Semitic.
Speaking to broadcasters on a visit to Wellingborough today, the Labour leader denied that factionalism played a role, saying it makes ‘no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party’.
‘Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action,’ he said.
‘It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election.
‘It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it.’
Meanwhile bookie William Hill has now made George Galloway the favourite to win what was a safe Labour seat in the vote on February 29.