On Saturday 27 December, 2008, Israeli jet planes dropped bombs on 50 targets across Gaza killing over 200 with the ongoing Operation Cast Lead. Coverage of wrecked buildings and bloody bodies was splashed across front pages, and by the Sunday protesters were parked outside the Israeli Embassy in High Street Kensington.
As someone whose knowledge of Middle Eastern politics could be described, kindly, as sketchy, I scrabbled for information, trying to understand why a bomb had been dropped in a non-war situation. Call me a simple-minded hippy, but surely you should avoid killing people en masse?
The hundreds gathered outside the Israeli Embassy last Monday were similarly anti-murder but I got a blast of good old English apathy as a passing shopper snickered ‘one man and his dog’ at the relatively small turnout. Yet the police who were present in force having made ten public order arrests the previous day were taking events more seriously.
The official Israeli line for a campaign that had caused nearly 300 deaths on the day in question is that they are protecting their citizens from Hamas rockets. Two Israeli citizens died before Saturday’s air strikes so I asked Dan Mayer of the Socialist Workers Party whether – as George Bush claims – the responsibility for this conflict lies with Hamas. He said: ‘That’s like saying that Hitler did what he did because a few Nazis were being murdered. In any situation there is an aggressor and an aggressee and Israel is the aggressor. Get rid of the causes of injustice.’
His last comment was a reference to the Israeli blockade of Gaza which has seen Palestinians in the Strip deprived of food, fuel and electricity for the past 18 months making them largely dependant on aid agencies for survival.
For those of you in the dark about the background against which the bombs fall, here is a simple summary of a complex conflict: Historically the land currently named Israel was the state of Palestine. In 1948 a UN committee divided Palestine up to create a Jewish state alongside an Arab one. However this was not a peaceful co-existence. There have been wars and Palestinians have been gradually forced to leave, all but the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This loss of territory has caused many Palestinians to relocate to surrounding Arab countries and makes the remainder largely dependent on the Israeli government and aid agencies for quality of life.
Mark Lipczynski, a woolly hat-wearing soul braving the cold, recalled going over to Gaza in 2006 to help with the olive harvest: ‘The Palestinians had to get permission from the Israeli government to pick their own olives,’ he said.
Oussama Mezous, 21, a fresh-faced observer from the Islamic Human Rights Commission said; ‘I think there is a problem with the media narrative of Israel, one of the most powerful countries.’
Hanging back coolly from the crowd surging at the gates of the Embassy I found Tony Benn, political stalwart and Godfrey King, a retired businessman. Mr King, himself a Jew, said: ‘The more demonstrations we have like this and like the 2,000 Jews in Tel Aviv burning the Israeli flag the more the world will pay attention.’
When asked if he was optimistic about the future he hesitated before saying: ‘I will be optimistic if Barack Obama comes to the aid of the Palestinians.’
It looks like the most exciting man in the world has another crisis to handle when he takes office on January 20.