For those of you who prefer internet porn and drinking to watching the news or at least staying vaguely aware of current events, the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine flared up once more on Wednesday, when Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza.
As is usually the case with the Israel-Palestine conflict – a battle that's seen its fair share of brutality and grizzly civilian deaths over the years – a lot of people from both sides are really pissed off. To put it mildly. Considering it was a Thursday night and the only other viable option for political debate was shouting at Question Time (and that we'd already spoken to people in both Israel and Palestine that evening), VICE News Editor Henry Langston and I decided it was a better idea to head down to the protest at the Israeli embassy and watch people shouting at each other in the street. The rally was called by Palestine solidarity campaigners and, of course, a group of pro-Israelis called a counter-demo.
As we arrived, the side of the road was rammed with protesters waving Palestinian flags, wearing keffiyehs – those Middle Eastern scarves that Topshop destroyed a few years back – and chanting things like, “In our hundreds, in our millions, we are all Palestinians!”
We also saw these guys waving the flag of Hezbollah – the Islamic militant group from Lebanon. They were predicting – or, at least, hoping for – an escalation of the conflict beyond Gaza, chanting, “Israel, Israel, you will pay, Hezbollah is on its way!”
Then we headed over to the pro-Israeli protest just up the road, separated by some strategically placed police vans. The Israeli demo was less well attended, but still pretty big – the size of both protests in London surely testament to two groups of people with large diasporas brought about by tragic histories.
The Israeli playpen was guarded by burly security men with ear-pieces, which seemed a little excessive. Who paid for them? I don’t know. It was weird. The security goons, rowdy atmosphere, dancing and the amount of people posing for photos while waving the flag of Zion made the whole thing seem a bit like the Hanukkah celebrations of some massively precocious celebrity offspring.
As we entered, a man noticed we were clearly there to cover the story rather than join in the protest and said, "Admit it, you feel safer over here with us than you do over there with them, don't you?" Because Palestinians definitely have a reputation for lynching neutral journalists in the middle of London.
After a while, some of the pro-Palestinians broke out of their pen and marched towards the Israeli zone. The two sides got in each other's grills for a short while – the Israelis taunting the Palestinians, telling them that Palestine doesn’t exist. The Palestinians weren't too happy about that, obviously. No one likes to be told their country doesn't exist.
The police eventually intervened and the opposing groups chanted “shame on you” at each other until the chants of both sides merged and became completely indistinguishable from one another.
That was all a bit anticlimactic – fizzling out like a sad, broken Catherine wheel – so we decided to pick the brains of protesters from both sides instead. Anyone we'd already spoken to had already mentioned the outrageous media bias in favour of/against Israel/Palestine. We didn't want to be accused of that in picking one side to speak to first, so we flipped a coin. It landed on Jews.
Sholon, 23, about to join the IDF and Gershon, 25, student.
VICE: Hey Shalon. So you’re joining the Israeli Defence force. When are you heading off to training?
Blimey. What makes you want to join the IDF?
I see the truth. I know what happens. I’m going to support my brothers and sisters.
So, I guess as far as you’re concerned, what’s happening in Gaza right now is Israel legitimately defending itself against Hamas rockets?
Yes, 100 percent.
Doesn’t it bother you that there’s a lot of what’s called “collateral damage” – innocent civilians getting killed?
How many Jews were killed today?
I’m not sure. I heard about three who were killed in a rocket attack.
Yeah, and one of them was a child. When they fire from Gaza, they’re aiming at anyone. When Israel strikes we’re aiming for terrorists – that’s it. We kill known terrorists. And they're protesting against that over there? It shows what they believe in.
But non-terrorists were killed today in Gaza.
That’s war. They hide behind their women and children.
Gaza is pretty small; it’s been said that killing civilians is pretty much bound to happen if you bomb Gaza.
They have places to go.
Wherever they want.
Great, great point. How about you, Gershon – why are you here?
Gershon: I’m a proud Jew, here to show my support for Israel. Israel has been under attack and gets unfairly portrayed in the media as the aggressor.
Do the Palestinians have any cause for anger?
Gaza is ruled by Hamas – a terrorist organisation that gained control of Gaza by a coup d’état. Hamas are not peace-loving people. One can understand the desperation, but that doesn’t mean you support the extremist views of Hamas. They don’t recognise a place for Israel.
Okay, but aren’t average people in Gaza paying with their lives?
Unfortunately, yes, in the same way that people being fired at with Hamas rockets are paying for decisions they did not make.
Do you think the Israeli attack could have come about as part of Palestine’s bid for statehood through the UN?
No, I don’t think so. There have been more rockets in recent months – there’s only so much you can take. If Hamas would stop its terrorist activities, that would be the end of it.
But in the West Bank, you’ve got Fatah, which doesn’t use terrorist tactics, and Palestinian land is still being misappropriated by Jewish settlers all over the shop.
Most of the settlements are nowhere near Palestinian populations.
Not sure about that, mate.
Gabby, 17 (and) Gabriela, 18, students.
VICE: What are your thoughts, girls?
Gabriela: My sister is in Israel packing to go to a bomb shelter as we speak. So much of Israel is within range of Hamas rockets, so it's scary. Israel has the capacity to bomb the whole of Gaza but they don’t because they value human lives.
Gabby: Yeah, when Israel launch rockets, they do it very carefully. When Hamas launch rockets, they try to hit schools and hospitals.
I wasn’t too convinced by that wildly speculative last answer, so headed off to the Palestinian side to give them a fair crack of the whip.
Shaani, 21, student.
VICE: What brought you down here Shaani?
Shaani: This is a platform for people's hurt. Are we really helping the people in Gaza? Probably not. I’ve got a friend in Gaza at the moment. I studied with him last year. We used to go out and smoke hookah together. Now he’s tweeting about the bombs falling in his neighbourhood. I feel kind of bad that I can go home and everything’s cool for me.
Aren’t those bombs a response to Palestinian bombs, though?
If you want to go into the history of it then we can, but basically, if you keep people locked up like animals, don’t be surprised when they behave like them. In fact, a 13-year-old Palestinian kid was shot by the IDF while he played football on the 8th November. What we’re hearing in the news is that Israel was provoked by rocket attacks. These rocket attacks came because of the death of that Palestinian kid. That’s the sad thing – innocent kids are getting caught up on both sides. I’d love a peaceful solution, but with Israeli imperialism over Gaza, it’s not an option.
Maha, 28, student.
VICE: I just talked to a guy who wasn’t convinced that this demo was going to make much difference.
Maha: I’m Palestinian, from Gaza. For me, it's not an option not to be here. I was in Gaza during the war in 2008, and when we saw that people were taking to the streets, it made a huge difference. When you’re being targeted you feel quite isolated, so when I saw this huge demonstration I was in tears because I wasn’t expecting it. For too long we’ve been treated as subhuman, so it's amazing to see people showing solidarity and trying to pressurise the government not to provide Israel with weaponry and legal cover.
What do you think brought on the current wave of violence?
The Israeli government needs to get votes and slaughtering Gaza is a winning card to play.
So it’s a tough guy act for the upcoming election?
Yeah. Regardless of how many civilians are killed, how many children die, regardless of international condemnation or lack thereof – as long as they get the green light from America, be it Obama, Romney or any other US President, they need to show that Israeli “security” comes first and we get forgotten.
So you don’t buy the line that Israel is simply defending itself from Hamas rocket attacks?
The context in which Hamas operates in is 64 years of disposition, of exile, of resource theft and failure from the international community. It’s not a conflict or a war, or even an asymmetrical war, it’s a colonial, settler occupation.
Do you think the conflict can ever be solved?
I’m a one-stater. I believe in equal rights for all. I don’t have a problem if you exist, but I have a problem if your existence is at the expense of my existence. What about me?
Hang on a second – an Orthodox Jew with a Palestinian flag? Was this an advanced troll who'd lost all perspective on when not to take the piss out of people?
It was not. Turns out you can be Jewish and not absolutely adore Israel. What the fuck did these guys think they were playing at? Screwing up my binary journalistic narrative and shit?
VICE: Hi there. How come you’re not supporting Israel?
Jacob Weisz: Israel was founded on injustice and until it accounts for what it did in 1947, there will never be justice and never be peace. We’re here in the name of Jews and Judaism to protest against Zionist aggression against the Palestinians in Gaza.
There are a lot of Jews on the other side of that police van who disagree with you.
So called “Israel” may have bought and hijacked many Jewish minds and hearts, but they'll never speak in the name of Judaism. Judaism is a religion full of values, not a political entity. It’s certainly not about injustice, subjugating people, robbing their olive groves and destroying their houses. This is something that we, as Jews, will always stand up against.
I was just talking to some Israelis who said that the IDF only kills terrorists. What do you make of that?
Obviously not. We can all see with our own eyes that that’s not true.
Even so, could it be argued that killing people is an ugly reality of defending Israel?
They're fooling themselves that they have the right to defend themselves. They don’t realise that they're an aggressive occupying power. As long as they occupy another people, they will never have that right.
So is Zionism not necessarily part of being Jewish?
Look at the history. Who founded Zionism? It wasn’t religious Jews, it wasn’t Rabbis, it was atheists. You could open a Jewish prayer book to find that out but you don’t need to go as far as that. It’s not a nationality. Judaism has survived centuries in the four corners of the world. Obviously we pray to be able to come back to Zion to serve almighty God – nothing more than that.
As people from the Israeli protest left, they walked past Jacob and his friends and told them what a "disgrace" they are. Still, the fact that the most ostentatiously Jewish people there could defy expectations and team loyalties gives me a bit of hope that some day people will see sense.
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