LONDON â€” Thousands of miles away from the Israel-Lebanon conflict, London’s Jews and Arabs are agreed on at least one thing: The Middle East is being radicalised by a US power play in the region.
“The Americans are creating thousands of new Hizbollahis,” or members of Lebanon’s Shiite group which has stood up to Israel’s so-called military might since July 12, said Yusef Srour, seated outside the Cafe du Liban coffee shop.
On the other side of the Edgware Road, a leisure mecca for Arabs in central London, a group of youths, some in the yellow shirts of Hizbollah, chanted as they made their way back from a “Stop the War” demonstration.
“Ya Nasrallah … destroy Tel Aviv,” the well-heeled and smiling youths â€” gripped by an “eye for an eye” mentality â€” urged the Iranian-backed Hizbollah’s charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Across town in Golders Green, a bastion of north London’s sizeable Jewish community, natural health therapist Linda Lavine said she was “sickened” by the loss of hundreds of civilian lives in Lebanon and Israel.
US President George W. “Bush wants to get involved in Iran. The US is pulling the strings, using Israel for its own interests … This is all about power and control,” she said.
Amid shalom (peace, in Hebrew) greetings, Melvyn Smallman, a 50-year-old businessman and frequent visitor to Israel, said he was “not a self-hating Jew” and insisted Israel’s actions were justified.
“They may have overreacted but Israel can’t just sit there. It was time to deal with Hizbollah’s 13,000 rockets,” he said.
Smallman complained of the “distorted” view of Israel, of anti-Semitism and of mounting criticism in the media. “The world, when it comes to the Jewish people, they expect very high standards of us,” he said.
Lavine’s mother Helen, looking elegant in a white summer suit, jumped in.
“Everybody hates the Jews. They are jealous that the whole world is run by the Jews,” she said. “Now Israel will be hated even more, with all those dead women and children in Lebanon … There will be more loons out to kill people.” Smallman was angry with the “biased and unbalanced” media coverage, airing grievances similar to those of many Muslims on Edgware Road who objected to Hizbollah being branded a terrorist organisation rather than the resistance.
He did not even know of Saturday’s peace march which drew tens of thousands of participants. “What good would it do me to hear of it? I only get worked up and angry because they peddle so much nonsense,” he said.
In sharp contrast, Rabbi Jacob Weisz, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, caught up with the march at its destination in parliament square after a seven-hour walk because of the religious ban on using motorised transportation on the Sabbath.
“Our message to the world is that what the state of Israel is doing is certainly not Jewish,” he said.
Amid the shisha, or nargileh, shops and flow of brand-new Bentley cars, Rollers and custom-built Mercedes convertibles of the Edgware Road, conspiracy theories were also rife.
“Whoever killed [Lebanon’s former premier Rafiq] Hariri and forced Syria out of Lebanon, they are the ones who planned this war.
It’s not about two captured Israeli soldiers,” said Kuwaiti student Ahmed.
Ahmed Mahmoud, 47, an Iraqi businessman finishing off an ice cream with his wife and daughter, was in little doubt: “The hidden agenda is to keep the Middle East weak and in political turmoil, to keep Israel strong.” Discussing the situation over a shisha and tea with colleagues and friends was the Palestinian ambassador to London, Manuel Hassassian.
“The US has geostrategic interests in the Middle East, they have their own agenda … It is using Israel to impose its hegemony over the Middle East and to polarise the region,” he said.
“America is trying to put pressure on Syria and Iran [Hizbollah’s two state backers] by waving the stick to make them bow to the dictats of the neo-conservatives in Washington,” said Hassassian.
He confided that he deplored the war in Lebanon on several counts.
“As a Palestinian, I have to be a little selfish. The Lebanon war has hijacked the sufferings of the Palestinians … We are being reduced to a footnote in the news,” said the ambassador, who addressed the peace rally.
But Srour, a British-Lebanese graphic designer who hails from south Lebanon and whose sister and her five children are missing after their border village was levelled by Israeli artillery, was seething with anger and frustration.
“Are they going to create their New Middle East through the blood of children and by dividing nations?” he asked, referring to remarks by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
At a nearby hairdresser’s, meanwhile, young men were having their beards neatly trimmed, Hizbollah-style.
At the demonstration itself, which started in Hyde Park on the yellowing grass due to northern Europe’s heatwave, opponents of British Prime Minister Tony Blair were having a field day. “I don’t want to be British any more, I am so disgusted with Blair” for siding with Bush in opposing an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, said Albert Prince, an environmental scientist and left-wing activist.
“How many more women and children have to die?” asked celebrity and rights activist Bianca Jagger in a speech after the march during which children’s shoes were symbolically piled up near Blair’s Downing Street residence.