Growing up in North London, in the Jewish heartlands of Golders Green, I was something of a solitary child.
It wasn’t that I had no friends, but I was perfectly happy in my own company. I would spend hours in the back garden kicking a football around, concocting scenarios of Cup Final glory.
And then one day I looked over the fence and saw another boy, kicking a ball around on his own.
At first I said nothing. But as we kicked our respective balls in our respective gardens, it struck me that it might be more fun to kick a ball around together. So I introduced myself.
He was Israeli, and slightly older than me – maybe nine, I was about seven. Over the next few months, we played together on the weekends. I don’t remember that much about what we talked about, but I remember him quite well – he had a lopsided smile, untidy hair and round glasses. If it had been a few years later, I would probably have compared him to Harry Potter – but Harry Potter hadn’t yet been published.
He had an older brother, who was about thirteen or so. He used to practice skateboard tricks in the driveway. He wasn’t particularly good, but I guess that’s why you practice – to get better. I remember their father, vaguely, a tall man with an Israeli accent who loomed high above me.
They only lived next to us for a few months. Then they left, and I got on with my life, and they got on with theirs.
Until 2002. March 31, 2002.
My friend, now 15, was sitting with his brother , now 18, and their father, in the Matza restaurant in Haifa. It was the height of the Second Intifada, and there had been a suicide bombing in the city just a few days before, but people weren’t overly worried. The Matza restaurant was owned by an Israeli-Arab family, and therefore it was believed it was an unlikely target for a terror attack.
It was lunchtime, and the restaurant was busy. A man walked in. His name was Shadi Tubasi, and he was a member of Hamas. He was wearing an explosive device, which he detonated.
He killed he killed my friend, his brother, their father and 13 others, and injured 40 more.
I remember being told about it. It was the first time someone from my small world had died – not just died, but killed, murdered, despatched violently from this world. For me, he wasn’t 15. He was the nine year old, with the round glasses, messy hair and lopsided grin. Whatever age he was, he didn’t deserve to die.
This is not a story I have told publicly before, and I am only telling it now because of what I am about to say. I am telling this now to demonstrate that I am under no illusions regarding Hamas. I know what sort of organisation it is. I know about its genocidal ambitions, the death and destruction it has wrought. I loathe it with a passion.
As I write this, however, I am in the depths of despair, because yesterday was a terrible day in Israel.
Some people will not recognise this description of yesterday. For them, it was a day of great triumph. After seventy years and countless prevarications, the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
As a symbolic gesture, it was a meaningful one. Jerusalem is the historic capital of the Jewish people and the religious epicentre of Judaism. Although it is recognised by Israel as its capital, there has been little international recognition of that status. The US embassy move to Jerusalem, it could be argued, heralds the start of a new era, of an Israel standing unashamed before the world.
But it should be ashamed today.
The violence on the Gaza border is not new. For the last few weeks, as part of what has been dubbed “the great return march”, thousands of Palestinians have approached the border, and have attempted to breach it.
This march was initially billed as non-violent. Whatever it may originally have been, once Hamas got involved, the non-violence was a thing of the past. Hamas is an acronym – its full name is Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah – but the word itself means “violence” in Hebrew. And the protests have been violent. Non-violent protestors do not throw rocks and Molotov cocktails. They do not launch flaming kites aimed at Israel with swastikas painted on them. The Hamas Prime Minister, Yahya Sinwar, described the stated aim of the attempts to breach the border as follows: “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
But the response from Israel has been death. Death and mutilation. A cloud of tear gas and a hail of bullets. Over fifty Palestinians were killed at the border yesterday, and well over a thousand wounded. Today, those numbers will likely be surpassed.
I know that Hamas has orchestrated these attempts to breach the barrier. I know that Hamas has offered stipends to the families of those killed or wounded in these protests, in the same way that it gives stipends to the families of those who have died while carrying out terror attacks against Israelis. I understand why Israel cannot allow these protestors to cross the border.
But every bullet Israel fires, every life Israel takes, makes this situation worse. There are ways to disperse crowds which do not include live fire. But the IDF has made an active choice to fire live rounds and kill scores of people. You cannot tell me that Israel, a land of technological miracles which have to be seen to be truly believed, is incapable of coming up with a way of incapacitating protestors that does not include gunning dozens of them down. But no. In front of the entire world, Israel keeps shooting, and protestors, including very young protestors, keep dying. You may tell me that Hamas wants these deaths, wants to create martyrs, wants to fill the hearts of the people of Gaza with rage against Israel because the alternative is for people to look at their lives in Gaza and rage against Hamas. But if you tell me that, why are you not asking yourselves why Israel is so willingly giving Hamas exactly what it wishes?
I am a Zionist. I believe that the Jewish people have a right to a State in their historic homeland, Eretz Yisrael. I believe that the Palestinians have passed up a number of opportunities for peace, from 1948 right up until the present day.
But I cannot defend Israel’s actions yesterday and today. I will not defend Israel’s actions yesterday and today.
There is sometimes a feeling within our community that Israel should not be criticised publicly. That Israel is fighting a constant battle for recognition and acceptance by the world, and every negative comment about it from Jews in the diaspora makes its position weaker.
Maybe that was true in the first decades of its existence. But today’s Israel is a regional powerhouse, forging increasingly strong ties with other nations – and having just demonstrated this past weekend with its Eurovision win how pitifully feeble the BDS movement against it really is. I think it is strong enough to withstand our criticism.
And it deserves our criticism, and our full-throated condemnation, of its current course of action.
Scores more Palestinians will die today. If we do not speak up now, when will we?
This article has been updated to remove the names of the victims, after correspondence with their family.