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Peace Fire

I came to this project in a strange kind of way: in 1990 I was a backpacker. That odd breed of traveller, often young, that likes to consider itself different or aloof to regular tourists.

Like many of many friends, I was supposed to be heading to Australia, seeking beer, parties, and the beach. But a variety of complicated reasons, not least a love now long lost, led me to the Middle East.

For several months, I lived and worked on a kibbutz. Stuck in the Negev desert, smack bang on the border with Jordan, Kibbutz Grofit was a curious place: a farming co-operative, boasting a small electronics factory, a fortress built on a towering rock, with several bunkers, trenches, an armoury and 40-50 soldiers protecting it at all times. It seemed at once part of the world, at the same time removed from it.

During my time there, and the travels that followed in the country, people kept telling me 'you don't understand'. Everytime I asked about politics or made a comment about Jews or Palestinians, I'd be met with this answer. I remember an Israeli truck driver giving me a lift when I was hitching down to the port of Eilat (itself an odd place, wedged next to the Jordanian city of Aqaba). The driver tried to explain things to me in his broken English. The gist, as he became ever more animated, was that 'the Arab doesn't know when he's dead, even when we kill him each time'.

I just smiled politely, hoping not to anger him any more. But I still didn't understand. That, and being constantly held responsible for the failures of the British Empire by everyone I met, made me mad. But I guess at some stage, these people were right. With my Guardian reader's sentimentality, it's true, I didn't understand.

From Israel, I whizzed through the Occupied Territories on my way to the Sinai and Egypt. I was following a well-trodden path, with my Lonely Planets guidebook and the company of fellow backpackers. And, like many, I remained ignorant of my surroundings.

It wasn't until many years - a decade - later, that some of the tragedy of the situation started to make sense. In the intervening period, I had travelled through various Arab and North African countries, reporting from the civil war in Algeria, covering the conflict in Kurdistan, and having lived in (then escaped from) Kuwait, just prior to the Gulf War.

In Lebanon two years ago, not long after the Israelis had left, I was escorted around Palestinian refugee camps, meeting members of a diaspora, some of whom had lived there since 1948.

In one camp, I was told by my guide, there were 17 different factions at work. In the southern suburbs of Beirut, I saw all the flags for Hezbollah and other Islamic militias. Then on the border with Israel, I watched as Lebanese civilians threw symbolic stones at the 'hated' enemy, the Jews.

I'd stood on the other side of that border 10 years earlier, with Israeli friends, watching the IDF's tanks go off on patrol, looking for 'terrorists'.

So, the Middle East - and the Israeli/Palestinian trauma - is something I can't forget. Or escape.

Yet it was another project that brought me here. One which Ethan Casey (co-editor of Peace Fire) helped put together: my book about a six-year journey into the heart of extremism, and the extreme right. Homeland.

My journeys in Homeland brought me into contact with a wide variety of white supremacists (or white nationalists as they like to call themselves). I felt uncomfortable as they regailed me with tales of Jewish power and influence - though I myself was not Jewish - and their questioning of the Holocaust.

This seemed a key issue for many of these movements, whether here in England with the British National Party, in Germany with the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or the Reform Party in the USA, gathered around senior ex-Republican Pat Buchanan.

We've all heard the ridiculous rumour that all the Jews mysteriously failed to turn up for work, the day the World Trade Center was destroyed. Some of the people I met seriously believed this.

This virulent anti-Semitism led some of the extremists to try and link up with Islamic groups. One KKK member I spotted posted to a newsgroup that his fellows should try and find any Palestinians in their area, to link up and join forces.

Ironically, this was happening at the same time as a rise in Islamaphopobia across the West: as riots were tearing apart cities in northern England and groups like the BNP here campaigned against Muslims. Muslim = Terrorist was the simple maxim.

Even two days ago, I received an email from a senior white supremacist in the States - someone involved with Pat Buchanan's Reform Party - who told me that 'we' (the Christians and Jews) have to put aside our differences and link up against the Muslims! It is a sad state of affairs when zealots unite.

This article was read at the launch of the book Peace Fire, www.peacefirenews.com, November 2002

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