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Friday, June 10, 2005

Jihad in Dublin

An all-too familiar scene - rabid Jew-hatred in a European city where the police stand by doing nothing.
THE blazing afternoon sun is beating down and youngsters with kaffirs wrapped round their heads mimic Palestinian terrorists, drawing on the full power of their small voices to scream anti-Israel slogans.

"Victory to the intifada," shouts one, perched on his father's shoulders as a megaphone is thrust into his face. Another clutching a "death to Israel" placard, is encouraged to join in with the chanting hundreds.

Slowly it forms into a sea of Palestinian flags and banners; the baying crowd's animosity towards the Jewish State is unequivocal.

Incitement to hatred? Not to the police, who turn a blind eye and happily offer consent to the protesters venting their venomous spleens.

It's an all-too-familiar scene frequently played out across the Middle East. Yet these aren't the dusty streets of Ramallah or refugee camps in Gaza. Welcome to the embodiment of liberal harmonisation: 21st century Europe and one afternoon on the streets of the Irish capital.

What had been promoted as a political protest against Israeli government policy turned out to be a furious demonstration of vitriol against the State - and anyone Jewish who caught the protesters' gaze.

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign pledged it would be peaceful, but the evidence on the streets revealed far more disturbing manifestations. The timing was meticulous, coming just hours before Israel challenged Ireland at Lansdowne Road for a World Cup spot.

As the early afternoon downpour subsided, a ragbag of activists gathered at 3pm on the plaza outside Dublin's Central Bank.

The influence of non-Palestinian groups was unmistakable. The presence of Sinn Fein banners, IRA supporters and Socialist Workers' members was barely concealed. A teenager, barely 16, flogged copies of Republican newspaper An Phoblacht. A Palestinian flag was draped round his back.

Floppy-haired teenagers togged out in black Nirvana and Slipknot T-shirts arrived in search of an afternoon's 'entertainment'. They eagerly accepted placards claiming the Israeli army were responsible for the deaths of 3,600 children. Chants about the security barrier were interspersed with cackling as they mischievously adjusted the words.

Either they are unusually well informed for their age or they were just looking to stir up trouble on an otherwise mundane Bank Holiday weekend. Whatever their politics, conflict can never be a laughing matter.

Girls, who have barely finished nursery school, waved banners proclaiming Sharon to be a war criminal that their parents had cajoled into their tiny arms. Like so many generations of Irish children bedevilled by conflict, they risk being the latest young pawns in a complex political battleground.

Then there were the football fans. Celtic and Ireland shirts were encased in Palestinian flags - any tactic to incite the opposition before such a decisive match.

Mostly it was a tame affair - for such a gathering. Leaflets were handed out; flags were being flogged for 10 Euros; and the chatter between marchers was punctuated by chanting.

Until the baying crowd scented their blood: passing Israeli fans.

They had come to support their team, on the brink on an historic second-only qualification for a major international football tournament. None would talk politics, that was a matter for another day - back home. Instead they shrugged their shoulders, amazed that they were facing such animosity.

The only conflict they expected to witness was on the Lansdowne Road pitch. That changed when they came into the sights of the radar of the Palestinian supporters. Their blue stripes and Magen David flags acted like red rags to a bull.

Unprovoked, they found demonstrators squaring up to them, ranting about Israel. The travelling fans were bemused. They assumed they'd left hostilities at home, thousands of miles away. Now they were expected to act as spokesmen for Ariel Sharon, despite no-one enquiring whether they backed the Premier.

"Sieg heil! Sieg heil!" shouted one Irish fan as he proudly Nazi saluted the city's guests - scenes captured by our photographer.

All the Israelis had done was to offer a handshake as a gesture of peace, after spotting the potential flashpoint. It was declined in a forcible manner. The garda (police) response to quell the tensions? To force the Israelis out of the vicinity, as if they bore the brunt of the culpability. The rules of engagement were established.

And worse was to follow. Initially the Socialist Workers, Sinn Fein activists and Muslims reserved their condemnation for the "occupation of the Territories" and the Israeli military.

Until the marching hundreds spotted another group of Israelis. Their Budget Hyundai hire car - adorned with "Israel loves Ireland" posters - was designed to be an illustration of goodwill in this febrile atmosphere.

No chance. Hissing, booing and jeering followed. These Israelis were targeted for backing a simple, non-political message of peace. A Muslim - clad in an "end the occupation" T-shirt, a kaffir around his forehead and a Palestinian flag tied round his neck - gesticulated aggressively towards them.

A one-fingered salute made his feelings transparent: you're not welcome.

Gardai seemed to concur. Confronting the vehicle's owners, their posters promoting harmony between the two nations were confiscated and screwed up. Free speech wasn't applicable for the Israelis on Nassau Street. Their only crime was being football fans.

As one senior constable warned the fans to vacate the vicinity of the protest, without warning their vehicle was removed at speed down the street by a colleague. They were dumfounded.

An officer monitoring the protests told me: "We've been told to remove Israeli flags and banners. I don't want to be here, but I'm only doing my job."

Edging slowly towards the Embassy, a middle-aged Irish woman whipped up the crowd in a frenzy with yells of "Israel is a waste of space" into her megaphone

Passing pub-goers chanted: "Up the PLO. Up the IRA". Groups of marchers were soon echoing this. Arms raised aloft, the spectre of Nazi salutes again reared its ugly head on the route. Gardai turned a blind eye.

As the rally continued down the long road, the venomous chants built up apace. Increasingly it resembled a rally in the Palestinian territories supporting jihadist militants. There they revel in terror; here the guise was a peaceful demonstration.

When they spotted a man sporting a Republic shirt and a kippah, the police stepped in. He was a Chelsea fan from London, and had come for the weekend with friends to watch the match. Bafflingly, the garda tried to remove him from the street. When the Palestine Solidarity marchers spotted him, the response was by now sadly predictable. They turned their venom on him, despite displaying no signs of affiliation with Israel and being one of their own - an Ireland fan. The kippah was enough; this made him fair game.

Again this overt antisemitism and incitement to hatred was unchallenged.

By the time the crowd reached the Israeli embassy their blood was boiling. But as the international television crews pitched up, the speeches delivered by the Palestinian supporters were forced to take on a moderate tone.

Against a backdrop of a re-creation of the security barrier, they claimed their argument was not against Israel.

Try explaining the "waste of space" and "victory to the intifada" yells that reverberated around Dublin. They called for the aerial attacks on Palestinians to stop. Then issued a plea for bombers of their own.

One became suspicious of my presence, having followed them on foot for nearly three hours.

"Your sort aren't welcome," the Muslim protester angrily informed me - assuming that I was Israeli.

At 5.20pm as the crowd dispersed could Dublin now prepare for the main event, a World Cup qualifier?

WITH the clock counting down until kick-off, the strains of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem and Am Yisrael Chai struck up at the rear of the Israeli Embassy. A small group of flag-waving Israel fans began passionately expressing their support.

Some were Irish Christian Friends of Israel, others had made the trip across the Irish Sea and later fans from the Jewish State upped the tempo with festivities and flag waving.

In an instant, the atmosphere was soured when a break-off from the Palestinian rally breached the confines of this peaceful gathering on the narrow pavement.

"A tiny crew of middle-aged motley tree huggers," remarked one observer. But with their giant flags they were determined that their presence was felt.

The Israeli team had been due to pass by the embassy to greet the travelling fans en route to Lansdowne Road, but security concerns prevented this from happening.

Meanwhile the police - so hasty preventing anyone interfering with the earlier Palestinian demo - did nothing to halt this intimidation. Palestinian supporters were allowed to heckle and taunt. One delivered repeated shouts of "Nazis".

Despite Israel fans urging them to halt the standoff, the police response was mute. The scuffles were inevitable.

One skin-headed man openly admitted to being an Irish Republican Army backer, the terrorists responsible for some of the worst violence in Ireland and Britain.

Sealed lips from watching police, despite their quick-fire interventions earlier in the afternoon against the Israelis.

The two sides remained fixed in place, eye-to-eye, flag-to-flag, until they departed for the match. As one protester packed up his placard, another poster was already in place on the reverse, campaigning for the bin tax to be axed. The bedraggled coalition had revealed their true rent-a-mob colours. On to the next demo then.

INSIDE the creaking Lansdowne Road, specks of red, green and white exposed themselves, but stewards appeared powerless to remove the Palestinian flags being hoisted in the stands.

Initially animosity was reserved for Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. The Taoiseach's anthem was booed, while silence ensued throughout the Hatikva. The 600 Israel fans in the North Bucket braved the teeming rain to belt out the anthem with pride.

But within 11 minutes of the whistle the Israelis were silenced. Lethal strikes from Ian Harte and Robbie Keane appeared to wrap up the tie. Struggling to press forward, Israel didn't appear to have a chance.

On their journey through the heated streets of Dublin, the team had been distracted by a replay of last month's Champions League final. Now they desperately sought to draw inspiration from Liverpool's comeback, a feat they accomplished within six minutes of the break.

Stage one was completed by Avi Yechiel, who marked his international debut with a well-timed equaliser.

Stage two came in the second minute of injury time when Yossi Benayoun, who was being watched by Newcastle United scouts, was brought down in the penalty area. After being forced thrice to retake the spot kick, with jeering ringing in his ears, Avi Nimni displayed coolness to level the tie and edge Israel closer to the World Cup finals in Germany.

At half time fans burst into a chant of "Israel Milchamah" - Israel's army - while the Irish were in shock. In the VIP area, an ashen-faced Taoiseach faced an ecstatic Roman Abramovitch, as the Chelsea owner tucked into kosher sandwiches.

And as the tie went into a nailbiting second 45, the visitors faced a barrage of antipathy as their players fought to defend the draw. The acrobatics and apparent histrionics of goalkeeper Dudu Awat infuriated the home crowd and they never forgave him for seemingly feigning injury which led to Andy O'Brien's sending off.

If anything, it was surprising that just one red card was brandished by Greek referee Kyros Vassaras. Israel defender Shimon Gershon feared the closing stages were developing into a street fight. "Tackles and elbows were flying in everywhere," he said.

At 9.31pm, with dusk settling over Dublin, Israel secured the vital point that nudged them closer to the finals in Germany. One Israel fan summed up the mood: "For the first time in Irish history, Israel was attracting the ire and venom of the Irish public with total justification."

However, an Irish fan would not let the tension remain on the field. As Awat was sitting in the lobby at the team's hotel, a bucket of ice was hurled at the Israeli keeper, who was already suffering from a suspected broken nose.

It underlined the rage facing Israelis even before the match. And it signalled the end to a disturbing day the Irish capital would rather forget.

A city that has played witness in centuries past to the tortuous results of bloodshed was again given the oxygen to become a battleground for simmering rivalries - even in the 21st century. Even in Europe, where for one weekend Israelis hoped to find solace in sport and escape the daily traumas back home. Some chance.

(hat tip to Pounce_UK)