Hundreds of miles away, families are huddled up inside their houses fearing the next explosion. Across the south of Israel and throughout Gaza, civilians are suffering the anxiety of a war that they cannot escape. The second day of fighting in Gaza has left a mounting death toll and an unknown number of people with life changing injuries.
This bloodshed seems a long way away from the Israeli embassy in north London. It is though, ultimately why around 1000 people gathered here on a cold November night.
As I approach the planned protest I am met first by a sea of blue and white – mainly in the form of the Israeli flags but also Union Jacks. A few hundred people had gathered to offer support for Israel. I quickly have two leaflets thrust into my hand; one entitled “Defending Israel from Terror” and the other urging me to donate to “Rocket Aid”.
I dither on the pavement as I read the leaflets. Some of the language on the leaflets attracts my attention. The first leaflet states “Operation Pillar of Defence is aimed at removing the threat to Israeli citizens. No innocent civilians will be targeted” and I think about how this aspiration seems to so routinely not be lived up to. Amnesty International has stated that two Israeli airstrikes in the last week alone have failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets and as such constitute a violation of International Humanitarian Law.
My attention though shifts to a woman who is draped in an Israeli flag handing a small child a leaflet whilst saying, “it’s important everyone knows the truth”. I decide that now was not the time to discuss the philosophy of ‘truth’. Instead I start a conversation.
It would be fair to say that we don’t always see eye to eye on every issue. At times though we find common ground, “Israel’s external security threat is not to be underestimated” she says. At times though we had to agree to disagree, “I don’t know what more Israel could be doing to get peace”. I offer her a list. At times I am left speechless by some of her analogies – the bombing of Gaza, she said is like having children “you talk to them and you talk to them but sometimes you just lose your rag”. I bit my lip.
Despite at times finding her views unpalatable, she was friendly and engaging and our conversation attracted other around us. A young Londoner called Harry was hanging around the edge of the protest and soon we were having a good conversation. Harry is a 17 year old student who wants to study International Relations and oozes confidence and intelligence.
I asked Harry why he was there and he responded passionately about schooling and how he thought that every kid should have access to it without being scared of rocket attacks. Indeed, Harry who has family in Israel had none of the anger or angst that can sometimes be found in these situations and I believed him when he said “I’m also here for the Palestinians, I’m here because I want them to be free from Hamas, a terrorist government”.
As I worked my way through the crowd trying to make my way to the much larger “pro-Palestine” demonstration I briefly met a man whose son had gone and joined the IDF, a spokesman for the ZF and a young girl of about 6 who “just wanted there to be peace”- a diverse crowd.
All the time though I kept being distracted by snippets of less guarded conversations in the crowd. “Fuck human rights” “Those Arabs, they would kill each of us if we turned our backs” “Why do Arabs always smell like they’ve shit themselves”. I couldn’t help but to be appalled and I wondered what someone like Harry would have made of some of these comments.
As I made my way through the lines of police between the protests, one stopped me and asked, “Are you one of them?” I gave an oddly constrained answer as if under interrogation and said “I was looking to get into the Palestine demonstration”. To seek clarification the officer asked “Are you Jewish”? I answered honestly, “no”. This seemed to be enough to let me walk freely between the demonstrations.
Once through I was met with the swaying force of 1,000 people all shouting and chanting. There were Socialist Worker Party banners everywhere. Almost immediately someone approached me and said “solidarity brother” and held out his fist. I replicated and we did, what I thought to be, a slightly awkward fist tap (like a high five but with your fist clenched). He looked at me smiled and said, “Yeah fuck the Jews man” and walked off.
With no sense of irony he turned and immediately started talking to a group of Jews who are anti-Zionist and can often be seen on ‘pro-Palestinian’ demonstrations. Language is used and abused but I still found the flippancy in which he muttered the phrase “fuck the Jews” to be deeply disturbing.
A wee scuffle broke out at one point between a young activist called Joe and a portly policeman. I approached Joe afterwards and asked what the problem was. Angrily at first he said, “They won’t let me confront them…the fascist scum. The EDL are down there and these pigs won’t let me through”. He looks through the policeman who is still hovering over us and says, “The Zionists are standing side by side with the fucking EDL”.
I asked around and indeed even went back to check, and couldn’t see any sign that the EDL had been at either demonstration.
All around me the crowd is loud. They chant in slogans that have been used for as long as the occupation and the mass of people seem to move with a collective pulse. The atmosphere is intense and the police numbers grow around the edges of the swelling crowd.
A young man with a scarf around his face sees me making notes and winds his way up to me. He tells me above the ambient noise that he is Indian and this is the reason why he has come here today. “I am here for myself because my country was occupied for hundreds of years. I’m here standing up for myself but also for the Palestinians – the oppressed”.
I ask him if he thinks it will work, if this demonstration will make any difference and he responds simply, “we have to try”. Even though he has a scarf over his face I can see his cheeks lifting and some wrinkles appear in the corner of his eyes. He exudes a sense of optimism.
Just as I finish speaking to him a small fight breaks out and two protestors are taken away by the police whilst chanting defiantly “Free free Palestine, from the river to the sea, free free Palestine”. The whole evening feels electric as if at any moment it could spill over.
After a gradual decline though, the cold takes most people back to their warm houses. Only a handful of anarchists and activist are left. One proclaims proudly “I’m only leaving in handcuffs” to which a policeman responds “did you bring any with you”?
As I arrived back to the warm of my south London flat, I turn on my computer and I am virtually reminded of the reason why we had all trekked across London on this cold November night. The Palestinian news agency, Ma’an News has on its front page a story that is grimly entitled “Teen brothers among 3 killed in Israeli airstrike”.
It states, “An Israeli airstrike killed three Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday evening…bringing the death toll to 19 on the second day of fighting.”
No amount of goodwill on either side will bring back the dead and only the Israeli government and Hamas have the power to stop further bloodshed. Let’s hope the leadership was listening to some of the moderate voices out on the streets of north London on this chilly November evening.