“It’s never really a good time to go to that part of the world, but now it’s especially bad,” a friend of a friend tells me, when I say I will be flying to Beirut soon.
She could have made this statement - which seems to belong in a London pub, over after-work drinks, and half-hearted political discussion – several times in the last ten years. The 2006 Israel–Hezbollah war, the internal Lebanese conflicts of 2008, the 2009 and 2012 Gaza-Israel conflicts - are but a few occasions when it was “especially bad”.
This time it’s July 2014, Israeli bombs are hitting Gaza (again), and I am tied to any immediate source of information. When Operation Protective Edge begins, a cousin of mine simply posts the word “Gaza” on Facebook. Other relatives and friends , living in western and Arab countries, share links to news stories and freshly formed opinion articles. The screen in front of me is a tidy collage, documenting the trauma that is taking place.
This need to speak out, cocktail of guilt, anger, and futility, as it so often is, was what moved many of us towards political protest that summer. In the space of three weeks, I attended demonstrations in both London, where I was born and brought up, and Beirut, on a long-planned trip to visit family for the first time in five years.
The willingness of the British left to show solidarity with the Arab world is something that has fascinated me since one million marched in protest of the Iraq war. Nearly a decade later, tens of thousands arrive in keffiyehs, Palestinian flags, and Stop the War badges, condemning Britain’s support of the Israeli government. Almost as loud as a festival - with stage and speakers to boot – a mess of green, black and red begins to march across London.
Being Ramadan, many Muslim protesters are fasting. It’s hot outside the Houses of Parliament, a group of young men give me most of a large bottle of water they have purchased to pour over their heads. I know the rise in islamophobia over recent years has further polarised British politics. I know this summer anti-Semitic attacks have worryingly increased throughout Europe. I consider that there is no such thing as an isolated conflict in the Middle East, not really, and that it is the same with discrimination in Britain. I see an anti-Israel banner that says ‘Holocaust 2.0’. My stomach turns.
Days later, having become obsessed with the civilian death count - in August the UN estimated that almost a third of Palestinian civilians killed were children - I am outside the Israeli embassy on High Street Kensington. Protestors move towards Marks & Spencer and McDonald’s. Police officers barricade entrances, momentarily the road is closed, and traffic stops. I watch, perched on the rail in front of the tube station, and wrestle with the idea of BDS (Boycott Divestments Sanctions) - a campaign encouraging economic and political action against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Apparently Marks and Spencer and McDonald’s are on the boycott list, but lefty Jewish friends and acquaintances call images of various brands being shared on social media inherently anti-Semitic. Pro-Palestinian activists say they will “call anything anti-Semitic.” At this point no one seems to properly understand how to implement BDS on an individual level; the division surrounds whether or not the campaign targets the Israeli government or Jewish business. Confused, I stop drinking Coca Cola, eating McDonald’s and shopping at my local Sainsbury’s - I give up fairly quickly.
In the same week, between frequenting the living rooms of relatives, I find myself at a protest on the Beirut Corniche. It’s hotter, we’re opposite a beach, and people are mostly speaking Arabic. Despite all this, I am mainly struck by the numbers; we are hundreds, rather than tens of thousands. It is immediately easy to spot several people I know within the crowd.
The second Beirut demonstration I attend, about half a mile north along the beach, is even smaller – only a hundred of us at most. Everyone listens as the names of dead civilians are read out with their ages. There are several speakers; it takes time. I am told some people are reading the names of their recently killed relatives. Whole families are announced in clusters, too many of them are children. I think I hear some who have the same surname as me.
There is a moment of silence. Then half a dozen people step forward to throw roses into the sea. My mind recalls the noise of London crowds: “Gaza, Gaza don’t you cry, we will never let you die!” I never can bring myself to join in for that one. I consider that Britain won’t ever really understand the full extent of what happens in this part of the world. For a moment the keffiyehs, face paint and heated discussions, within progressive circles, amongst progressive people, seem like an odd sort of superhero costume being worn to the political guilt party.
I wonder, cynically, if my relationship with Palestinian politics is also formed entirely from this sense of guilt: In Britain we try to prevent Gaza from dying - as though what has been lost can be resuscitated - the public take to the streets loudly. In Beirut we count the names of the dead and listen for their ghosts.
I am left watching the sun come down on the Mediterranean Sea. The demonstrators start to sing songs in Palestinian Arabic.