|7th May 2002|
The Holy Land seemed to come to Westminster yesterday.
Around 30,000 Jews descended on Trafalgar Square at 2 o'clock for the 'Israel Solidarity Rally', and to listen to talks by Benjamin Netanyahu, Peter Mandelson and the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Tempers quickly frayed among the thick press of humanity, and the combination of claustrophobia and warm May sunshine took its toll on the elderly - many of whom were carted off by St. John's Ambulance.
Nothing could be seen of the speakers over the sea of Israeli flags, and only snatches of the speeches were audible to listeners on the edge of the crowd. Benjamin Netanyahu announced the willingness of Israel to fight: "The question isn't whether Israel will fight but whether we will fight alone".
He seemed to me to be a strange man to bring to what had been billed as a peace rally. Almost as if Britain's Jews were breaking out the big guns in more than just the metaphorical sense.
Strangely no one questioned the presence there of the hawkish ex-Prime Minister of Israel who, just two weeks ago, tried to persuade George Bush to break off negotiations with Yasser Arafat, and advised instead that the Palestinian leader be replaced with a more 'pliant' politician. Fortunately for the world Mr Bush seems to have realised that an Israeli stooge in Ramallah would command very little respect among Palestinians.
At the same time as the Professor Sacks was warning his listeners of an anti-Zionist bias in the British media, at the end of the Mall nearest Trafalgar Square a small, if vocal, crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters had gathered to chant 'Death to Israel'. Here the atmosphere of a family outing that prevailed at the Jewish rally was rather lacking. Hezbollah, Lebanese and Palestinian flags flew, alongside a few Anarchy flags left over from last week's May Day protests. Earnest young men and women wearing headscarves over their faces screamed at the Jews, who were safely cordoned off on the other side of the road.
As the Israel Solidarity Rally broke up, and the Jews were escorted out on the far side of Trafalgar Square, a bearded middle-aged man, with glasses and an anorak began to address the counter-rally through a megaphone. "It's not about numbers, it's about quality." He bellowed. "There are two thousand over there and a few hundred over here. Remember that the quality of a believer is ten times that of a non-believer - and if you die then you will go straight to Heaven."
Fights began to break out and, despite frantic pleas for calm from a few elderly protesters, several of the men, their faces concealed by their scarves, jumped over the railings and ran down Whitehall pursued by police.
"He fought in Bosnia, you know." Said the man next to me.
The speaker, Mohammed Yusuf, 46, is a Jewish convert to Islam. Last November he achieved brief notoriety by distributing copies of a one-hour film of Osama Bin Laden urging his followers to rise up against the West, in the car park of Birmingham Central Mosque.
I caught up with him a few minutes later. He seemed very willing to talk, and was rather charming in a slightly rabid way. "I know Netanyahu" he declared dismissively. "What's he going to say? It's the same as the Sharon message. It's from Likud. That's not a peace rally, that's a rally for genocide."
As he was led away by an acolyte, I asked him one final question. "Mr Yusuf, what did you do in Bosnia?"
He smiled broadly.
"Aid worker." He said, and slapped my cheek playfully.