Last Thursday Independent journalist Robert Fisk claimed that Ghalid Shalit’s exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners put to bed the old notion: “We don’t deal with terrorists.”
This was a British mantra during the Irish Troubles, the conflict between 1969-1998, when the Irish Civil Rights Movement and Irish Republican Army (IRA) challenged British rule with civil disobedience, bombing campaigns, and sectarian violence. But – admittedly important – prisoner exchanges, in Ireland or the Middle East, show that there is no high ground.
Ireland taught us that adverse circumstances – many almost identical to Palestine’s – could be (temporarily) solved by withdrawal of imperialist policies. For example, Britain closed prisons and released prisoners in the run-up to the 1998 peace.
For peace to succeed in the Middle East, Israel too must check its course. It may take a global campaign of populist resistance, fully endorsed by Western governments — beginning with a unilateral boycott of Israel — for this to properly succeed.
There are far more direct parallels between the conflicts, not least the fact that the “Black and Tans” were deployed in both Ireland and Palestine. The Tans were a British militia formed after WWI to brutally avenge the “terrorism” of the burgeoning IRA, and Arab unrest, with disproportional, aimless violence — all too often aimed at civilians.
In 1920, one British Army officer warned, “We are importing crowds of undisciplined men who are terrorizing the country.” Another official told his men: “Innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”
These could easily have been the words of Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, condoning the current violence in Gaza. As journalists, politicos, and citizens, we can dream up eloquent policies with which to understand the conflict, but, until we vindicate Israel and its actions in a way that is proportional and appropriate, a truly fair resolution will not be reached.
IRA bombs on civilians should be condemned, alongside Hamas rocket attacks — but their actual cost and threat should not be over-emphasized compared to the aggression they respond to. Look at the human ratio: 1,027 Palestinians exchanged for 1 Israeli prisoner; in Cast Lead, 1,400 Palestinian dead for 11 Israelis.
Today, it is in the interests of the Israelis to maintain a sense of forever being under threat. In Ireland, while the British press stoked racism and marginalized Irish communities at home, the army ruled with abandon. They convicted innocent men and women, like the “Birmingham Six,” using summary justice, fabrication or suppression of evidence, and even torture. On January 30 1972, “Bloody Sunday," 14 unarmed civilians were shot dead in Derry by British paratroopers and then blamed in the subsequent cover-up. The soldiers had been threatened, it said. Evidently, victimhood is the motor of modern Western imperialism.
In the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the British did their own deal with the terrorist zeitgeist to help create a vital multi-party seal on the earlier paramilitary ceasefires of 1994. It has saved lives and created a sense of stability. But that make-do peace may yet come unstuck.
At the last count, there were 88 “peace lines” (partition walls), official and otherwise, across Northern Ireland. Sectarian violence hits Belfast regularly, and bombs still go off in northern cities, even if it is not quite such a concerted campaign as during the Troubles. Meanwhile, former IRA commander Martin McGuiness now stands alongside Dr. Ian Paisley in the Stormont Assembly, an important symbol of Ireland embracing its turbulent past.
It is time for Britain and Israel to both do the same. Last year, the Saville Report found the 14 Derry civilians from Bloody Sunday innocent and their murderers’ actions unjustified. Prime Minister David Cameron urged: “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the British army in Northern Ireland.” But it is. Britain is still in denial.
There has not even been such a move in the Middle East. The refusal to even recognize Palestinian statehood — Tony Blair, without irony, called the bid “deeply confrontational” — shows how far we have to come. Perhaps Marwan Barghouti’s release would be a productive first move by Israel.
This conflict has happened before. Ireland found peace, and ultimately so can Israel and Palestine. But without a sense of injustice driving the peace process and some kind of proportional culpability, we will continue in this bog of meaningless liberal real politik.
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