On Saturday, I go on a demonstration against Israel’s war in Lebanon. It leaves from the Embankment and snakes through the backstreets of St James and Piccadilly to Park Lane and Hyde Park Corner. There are somewhere between ten and thirty thousand people on it, but I don’t bump into anyone at all that I know, a very unusual occurrence. The demonstration has been organised by the usual antiwar coalition partners, with the late addition of the British Muslim Initiative.
The vast majority of placards on the demo feature Lebanese flags, red white and green, the cedar sometimes reduced to as little as a geometric christmas tree. About half the people on the demo are middle-Eastern-looking, in any case a much higher proportion than on the anti-war demos of 2002-4. There are several bunches of stereotypically Lebanese-looking young blokes: pumped torsos covered by tight t-shirts, gold chains and sunglasses pushed up over slick black hair. I see two proper frummers with fur hats and payess at the rally.
There are a scattering of home made placards: I spot one that includes swastikas referring to Israel, one that says ‘Hands off Lebanon, free the soldiers’, and one that simply says ‘Stop killing people’. My favourite placard says simply: ‘United by Moses, big noses and felafel’.
Quite a few placards, prominently bearing the URLs of Innovative Minds and the Islamic Human Rights Commission carry a picture of children injured after being refused sanctuary by the UN and the slogan ‘We are all Hizbullah’ (which has its own echoes.) I ask a Lebanese woman carrying one of these placards what it means and whether she supports Hizbullah. She says yes, they are the defenders of Lebanon. I ask whether the fact that they are anti-semitic and kill civilians makes any difference. She says that she is from the region, that I don’t know most of what is going on there, that this is a war, and that Hizbullah are the defenders of Lebanese civilians. She says that we have different points of view, and I thank her for explaining hers to me.
There are quite a few distinctive green and yellow Hizbullah flags on the demonstration too, though people shouting pro-Hizbullah slogans are in a minority. I try to keep a distance from the main Hizbullah phalanx, but as I’m rounding the corner onto Park Lane, a policeman approaches a man close to me who’s been carrying a Hizbullah flag on a tall pole and suggests to him that it’s ‘inappropriate’ to be carrying a Hizbullah flag at that height. He and his friends argue back (though they don’t raise the flag again) and soon they’re surrounded by a group of Met spotters pointing cameras and other devices at them. I don’t hear anyone on the demo shouting any slogans about the Metropolitan Police murdering Jean Charles de Menezes.
For some reason we’re not allowed into Hyde Park itself, so the rally and the speakers are wedged into an awkward angular space just outside the gates. One speaker asks the crowd if they support democracy, if they support the democratic government of Palestine, if they support Hamas (all of which receive enthusiastic affirmative cheers) and then tells us that we’re all potentially terrorists under UK law. George Galloway follows this up with a short and pointed speech in which he tells us that despite this being potentially criminal, he is here to glorify Hizbullah, and Nasrullah in particular, as the legitimate defenders of the people of Lebanon against Israeli attack.
He’s followed shortly afterwards by David Rosenberg of European Jews for a Just Peace and the Jewish Socialists Group (their leaflet for the demo) who makes a longer and much more eloquent speech in which he points out that opposing Israel’s actions does not make one an anti-semite or ‘self-hater’, that Jews in both Israel (he mentions a demo in Tel Aviv) and across the diaspora are opposed to the war, and that to oppose Israel’s actions does not automatically mean giving support to Hizbullah or Hamas. He gets applause every bit as loud and enthusiastic as Galloway.