Monday, 29 January 2007

Israel and Northern Ireland: lessons to learn?

Three different Palestinian groups are claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing today, which killed three people in Eilat. It's the first suicide attack on Israeli soil for nine months.

This wasn’t the attack of an oppressed victim against a powerful occupier. It wasn’t an attack against the failed policies of Arafat or Sharon or Olmert, which have turned the progress of the late nineties into the total deadlock of the mid-noughties. It was an attack on a bakery in a seaside resort, an attack against three normal Israelis buying bread.

On the same day, in Northern Ireland, politicians across the communities are welcoming Sinn Féin’s decision to support policing, which is an important milestone in the peace process. The situation there is far brighter than it was in Manchester in 1996, when IRA terrorists detonated a bomb in the Arndale shopping centre. Nobody was killed, but as a 10-year-old boy, I was bewildered and panicked at being evacuated by police from the centre of my own hometown. That was the first and only time in my life that I’ve genuinely felt someone was trying to kill me. As a kid, I had no idea why it happened; as I got older, I learned about the troubled history of Ireland, and the confusing and unsettling role Britain had played in that story. I could start to see the legitimate grievances of the republican community in Northern Ireland, but had trouble understanding why I deserved to die for them.

Although the stories of Northern Ireland and the Palestinian Territories are very different, there are some useful and optimistic parallels. The developments in Northern Ireland over the past decade have shown that it’s possible to move forward from deep wounds and historic grievances. They’ve also taught us a more sombre lesson: if you want peace, you have to sacrifice principles to the greater good, even if it means working with people who have a bloody past – and that applies just as much to Hamas as it does to the IRA. In a rare moment of common sense on Israel/Palestine, Chris Davies MEP wrote that having been elected to power, Hamas needed to transform themselves from a paramilitary group into a mature political party, prepared to use diplomatic clout rather than explosives. (Press Release, 26 Jan 2006) Making peace is far harder than blowing up buses and rocketing hospitals, and I’m extremely sceptical – but there at least has to be a chance. If we don’t at least talk to Hamas and offer them the opportunity to engage, then that chance, however slim, goes down to zero.

At the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Brighton last October, I was at the fringe meeting where Jenny Tonge said she would consider becoming a suicide bomber, if she were a Palestinian. After the talk, I had a rather heated discussion with another Lib Dem. “Is it such a terrible thing for Jenny to say?” he asked. “You have to understand how it must feel if you couldn’t travel freely within your own territory. If you couldn’t bring your crops to market, because they went rotten whilst you waited three days to cross the checkpoint. If you had to watch your family strip-searched and humiliated. What would you do if you were a Palestinian?”

I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I still don’t know the answer. There are some very obvious things the Palestinian Authority and Israel could both do, but as an individual Palestinian, it must feel humiliating and scary. I don't know what I would do in their situation. But I know for certain what I would not do. I would not strap explosives to myself, and walk into a bus, or a restaurant, or an Eilat bakery, and murder somebody else’s family, somebody else’s loved ones.

This multiple homicide in Eilat should be hateful to every right-thinking human being, and it’s another worrying sign for the gridlocked Middle East peace process. But if we can learn anything from the Northern Irish experience, it’s that our desire for quality of life can put an end to the violence. Any rational person would choose stability, peace, and a good quality of life over the fine detail of the settlement of a political grievance. The difficulty lies in making sure peace really is on offer – which is why, despite this setback, Israel must still consider a long-term truce with Hamas, backed up by international monitoring, even without a political solution. The final settlement is crucial, but both sides will find it hard to muster the political willpower for it, unless they are already enjoying the benefits of stability and peace.


Manfarang said...

The situation in the Middle East is much graver than Northern Ireland ever was.It is essential that efforts are made to bring peace to that region but no one should be under any illusions.

Linda Jack said...

An interesting and important perspective. I have served as a soldier in Northern Ireland and have had strong connections with Israel/Palestine over the last 12 years or so. The problems have parallels but I am inclined to agree with your last comment. The situation in the Middle East is far more complicated and actually historically very different (so many Palestinians, whether living in the Palestinian Authority, Israel or refugee camps in Lebanon, remember what happened in their life time). Whilst there has clearly been some involvement in the "troubles" in Northern Ireland from Americans, the conflict has largely been confined to these islands. The same cannot be said for Israel/Palestine. So, whilst I agree with you that it is unthinkable that anyone could ever think to become a suicide bomber and kill innocent people, I do believe that until we seek to really understand why they do it we will be unlikely to find a solution.

Anonymous said...

I think Linda you make an important point about the need to really understand what motivates Palestinians to commit acts of terror. It seems unthinkable to most of us (maybe not Jenny Tonge and Chris Davies) yet there seems to be no shortage of people prepared to kill themselves if they can take enough others with them - just look at what happens every day in Iraq.

It is very hard for people living cosy lives in middle class Europe to begin to get inside the mind of someone with a totally different outlook on life, with a culture, belief system and set of priorities entirely alien to ours.

This becomes critical when we have a mind to engage them in negotiation. Jonny talks about opening dialogue with Hamas. To my mind that calls for optimism beyond anything displayed by Neville Chamberlain and will not lead to peace in our times or anyone else's. You would come back with a piece of paper with "truce" written on it but no genuine acceptance of an enduring Israel on the part of Hamas. A truce would hand Hamas a tactical victory on the path to their openly stated goal of removing Israel. They would buy time and remove the current blockage to their finances which hinders their fight.

It is all too easy to project our values and outlook onto others. We value freedom, health, prosperity, education, the arts, family life, security and peace. Surely the Palestinians are people just like us and can be reasoned with. They love their kids and can't enjoy the miserable lives they lead, and we can be sure they want all the same things that we do. They're just a bit riled up because of the beastly treatment they get at the hands of the Israelis, and when we can sit them down with a nice cup up tea they'll surely agree that a land-sharing compromise with Israel and an end to all this terrorism makes sense. They will surely, won't they? Won't they ??? Hmm .....

Jonny Wright said...

"Chaque homme porte la forme entiere de l'humaine condition."

("Each man bears the entire form of the human condition.")

--Michel de Montaigne