In April of this year, Queen Elizabeth did something extraordinary. The British Monarch hosted a state dinner for the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, at her Windsor Castle home and invited a stellar list of luminaries to sit.
In the normal course of events, this wouldn’t merit much analysis; a head of state inviting a neighboring equivalent for some diplomatic dining. However, amid the cast of preeminent invitees, which included Anglo-Irish actor Daniel Day Lewis and Dublin rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll, was a man who not long ago was considered the greatest enemy of the UK state, Martin McGuinness.
Unthinkable a few short years ago, McGuinness’ presence was also phenomenal from his perspective. He had spent the greater part of his adult life waging war against Crown forces and now he was breaking-bread with their figurehead in her own dining room.
There was a personal edge to the relationship too. Back in 1979, while McGuinness was allegedly the leader of Irish Republican Army (IRA), Earl Mountbatten of Burma – the Queen’s second-cousin and an uncle of her husband, Prince Phillip – was killed by an IRA bomb whilst on a boating holiday in County Sligo. Mountbatten had also acted as a mentor for her son, Prince Charles, and was known as the ‘honorary Grandfather’ by the presumed heir to the British throne.
This was deeply personal for Queen Elizabeth and equally emotive for McGuinness. He had been second in command of the IRA in Derry in 1972 when the British Army Parachute Regiment shot 26 innocent, unarmed protesters in cold blood on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
That incident inflamed the Ulster ‘troubles’ and by the time they ended with the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, 3,530 people had died (1,936 of them civilians) and over 47,000 had been injured. Among the casualties were members of the British aristocracy, government ministers and ordinary Derry civilians, some of whom McGuinness had considered friends.
Truthfully, the Queen surely feels repugnance towards the IRA and McGuinness similarly abhors the British establishment – he has spent decades trying to remove it from his province, first violently and in later years, politically.
However, the diplomatically experienced and artful monarch and the rebel-turned-statesman both have one massive incentive in common. Neither wants a return to war, both want to preserve the fragile Ulster peace and they are willing to ‘put up’ with each other in order to guarantee that.
The British-Irish disaccord effectively began in 1171, when King Henry II landed his forces in Waterford and the following year took control of Dublin and created the Lordship of Ireland.
It essentially ended in 1998, 827 years later. That is ten lifetimes for the average child born in the Western world today and was many more historically – it’s a span of time almost incomprehensible to the singular human mind. It’s also worth being mindful of Chairman Mao’s apparatchik, who mentioned that ‘it was too soon to say’ what the effects of the French Revolution would be, as the peace holds for now but is not completely airtight.
However, the IRA’s origins were in the late 19th century when the Fenian movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood sprung up as counterparts to the parliamentary focused Home Rule campaign which sought Irish independence from the UK state.
The dangerous history
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is once again in the news, due to the appalling slaughter in Gaza, also has its roots in the end of the 19th century when nationalist movements gained momentum in the Jewish and Arab worlds, aimed at achieving sovereignty for their people in a European-dominated Middle East.
Nevertheless, many Jews see it as a continuation of a battle which began in 70 AD (that’s 1,944 years ago) when the Second Temple was destroyed by Roman Forces under the future Emperor Tiberius and the Israelites were slowly scattered to the four corners of the world.
During the long period when the Jewish community was dispersed, and settled mainly in Eastern and Central Europe but was also to be found in places as disparate as Iran, Siberia and Africa, the Palestinians had become mainly Muslim (with a significant Christian minority) and Mohammed’s faith had become by far the dominant one in the region. By the 1880’s, when the first significant wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine took place, the area was under the control of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and only 15,000 Jews resided there, compared to 408,000 adherents of Islam.
Jewish immigration continued over the next three decades and by 1917, when the Turks had been defeated and the British were the new overlords, the figure was estimated at around 78,000. It’s worth noting that these figures refer to the entire Palestine Mandate which was considerably larger than the territory disputed today and that the Jews invariably purchased the land they took.
A further wave of immigrants followed over the next few years, mainly from what became the Soviet Union as civil war engulfed their adopted lands. Around the same time, the Arab resistance was fomented by Lawrence of Arabia with the support of Churchill as being necessary for a British victory over the Ottomans.
Also in 1917, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour wrote to Baron Rothschild, on behalf of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland – this letter became known as the ‘Balfour Declaration.’ In it, Balfour indicated that the UK favored the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and sowed the seeds for the modern Israeli state and continuous tensions between the Jewish and Palestinian communities in the region.
The following year, Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast (he would be raised in Dublin, the new capital of the Irish Free State, where his father was an enthusiastic supporter of the IRA) and he later became the sixth President of Israel.
Herzog would also go on to head the Intelligence Branch of the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which put paid to the original British plan to divide Palestine into three areas; an Arab State, a Jewish one and a special international status for the city of Jerusalem. Ironically, this plan is still suggested by foreign supporters of the Palestinian cause as the best solution for the region. The domestic Palestinian factions demand Jerusalem as their capital.
A lesson from the Queen
Why do I draw the analogy between the ‘Irish Question’ and the Jewish one? For two reasons, firstly because I am Irish and secondly because I think the only possible solution to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle is something along the lines of the power-sharing settlement which, although imperfect, has brought peace to Ulster. In simple terms, the leaders of Israel are going to have to take Queen Elizabeth’s lead and bite their tongues and the Palestinian rulers (most likely Hamas) will have to mimic Martin McGuinness and acquiesce to tolerance of their foes.
I’m not suggesting they love each other or suddenly bathe in the warm glow of friendly kinship, I’m merely proposing that they consent to at least pretend to get along in public. This is the only possible outcome for the region that doesn’t involve more futile butchery and terror.
Irish politician Chris Andrews of the Sinn Fein party, whose grandfather Todd was a prominent IRA member in the 1919-21 Anglo-Irish war which created the modern day Irish state, has taken a pro-Palestinian line for years. During the 2009 Gaza War, which cost 13 Israeli lives and 1,417 Palestinian, he described Israel as a ‘terror state’ while serving in the Dublin government of Fianna Fail. He also called for the Israeli ambassador (in Ireland) to be expelled and has subsequently taken part in humanitarian flotilla to Gaza.
“The Palestinians are facing a state which has overwhelming force, resources and military power. They use that to effectively destroy the notion of a Palestinian state. The Israelis believe they are under siege from the Palestinians – having settled in lands that were previously recognized as Palestinian (by the international community). It has turned into an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth conflict,” he claims.
“Israel uses disproportionate force on an under-resourced people. The international community ignores it and Israel seems to be able to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. The EU should be stronger on sanctions against Israel (diplomatic) and what they could also do is ban products from the illegal settlements. Also, EU business should be looking at itself and cease buying products from other locations,”continues Andrews.
Is Israel a terrorist state as alleged? Or are they simply trying to preserve their territorial integrity in opposition to murderous terrorists? The general Western view is that because Israel is a democracy – indeed, the only functioning one in the region – it can’t be classed as such, as if its democratic status justifies all its actions. Also, Israel relies not on its democratic status but on the provisions of international law when justifying its self-defense at the UN.
Palestine also held free elections in 2006 but when Hamas won a comfortable majority the ‘freedom lovers’ in the USA and EU refused to deal with the winners. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by both entities and Israel. Of course, another stumbling block is that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and the deputy Chairman of its political bureau, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, recently stated that “this is a red line that cannot be crossed.” Incidentally, the UK once felt the same about the IRA – and the feeling was mutual – but today its Queen is happy to exchange pleasantries with McGuinness so that proves deeply held convictions can change when expediency dictates.
The current Gaza crisis, which had caused at least 160 deaths by Monday morning, is part of an ongoing ‘troubles’ which began around the summer of 2006 and has thus far caused over 2,200 fatalities – very much disproportionally on the Palestinian side as only 39 of them are generally attributed as Israeli losses.
“It appears that the recent kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers adds to a sense that Hamas is preparing another offensive. It would seem to be a campaign targeted at degrading Hamas’ military capabilities in the short to medium term,” suggests political commentator, John McGuirk, a prominent supporter of the Israeli position.
McGuirk argues Israel is justified in its actions: “The first duty of any state is, after all, the protection of its own people.” However, he counsels that if Hamas were to launch a third Intifada (rebellion) it would serve to merely embolden the Israeli hard-right and make peace an even more distant prospect. He also suggests that America is more part of the problem than the solution and that Russia might have an important role to play in bringing peace to the region.
“They (the USA) are so close to Israel that one understands why a peace backed by them would be seen as suspicious by the Palestinians. A greater disaster would be turning the region into yet another proxy for geo-strategic dominance between the USA and Russia. However, a genuine partnership to bring lasting peace would do much for humanity and, as such, provides President Putin with an opportunity to showcase his leadership to make the world a better place. If the US and Russian administrations could work together on this, significant progress could be achieved,” McGuirk adds.
It’s clear that the USA cannot be an honest broker in this debacle as its bias towards Israel is profound and a cause of massive offence in the Arab world. However, Russia has been walking a fine line in the region and has managed to maintain reasonably good relations with both belligerents. While the Soviet Union was unabashedly pro-Palestinian, the successor Russian Federation has been as neutral as possible. It has condemned Israeli excesses in Gaza, and supported Palestinian state-hood, while equally resolutely backing Israeli’s right to exist and defend itself. There is also the little mentioned fact that, despite popular perception, the largest expatriate Israeli community is not in New York or Berlin, but in Moscow and it numbers 80,000. Furthermore, Israel has expressed interest in creating a free trade zone with the Eurasian Union – the brainchild of President Putin.
However, peace seems a long way off currently while devastating fury is unleashed on Gaza and Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israeli territory. The spark for the current violence was the murder of three Israeli teenagers but subsequently the body of an Arab teenager was discovered and led to violent protests in East Jerusalem.
Palestinians say the boy was murdered by Israeli extremists as retaliation for the murders of the three teenagers. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, have acknowledged the murder was a grave crime, though Netanyahu has been cautious to not describe it as a revenge killing. The danger of this tit-for-tat violence is that it may be hard for either the Israeli or Palestinian authorities to contain and that’s why the International community is very nervous. However, Israel’s security fence means that there are limited Hamas retaliation options – the settlements are more exposed.
The roots for the current confrontation were planted earlier this year when talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders broke down – yet again. This resulted in recriminations from both sides, with Abbas accused of choosing a unity government with Hamas over peace, while the Israeli government was slated for returning to their settlement building enterprise almost right away.
Following the disappearance of the Israeli teenagers it became clear that soldiers weren’t looking for them so much as collectively punishing Palestinians for the crime of a small few. Netanyahu (probably falsely) blamed the kidnapping on Hamas – most likely in an attempt to derail the unity government – and warned they would “pay a heavy price.” But it isn’t Hamas; it is Palestinian civilians who are paying a heavy price now.
As someone who grew up in Ireland while the ‘troubles’ raged in the North, this is depressingly familiar, ‘tit-for-tat’ sectarian killings, blame being erroneously apportioned to justify murder on both sides, and a never-ending cycle of futile killing.
Furthermore, both regions began their modern trajectory to violence at approximately the same time, and the two also share the in-bred grievances of centuries of feuding. Once upon a time, Northern Ireland was seen as intractable and this Middle East dispute is perceived as being obstinate today.
Ulster is living proof that this doesn’t have to continue to infinity. Of course, the peace is not perfect, it never is, but for 16 years, through every tumult imaginable, it has held and Martin McGuinness and the Queen are now capable of respecting each-others status and views. The Middle East gap is, on the other hand, less bridgeable while Hamas promises Israel’s destruction – the IRA never advocated the complete annihilation of the UK.
It might be naive to think that Abbas and Netanyahu could one day do the same, but I sincerely believe that power-sharing and a two-state solution is the only plausible solution to this seemingly incurable struggle. To achieve this, it might be time for Israel to follow the reverse steps of their sixth President, Chaim Herzog, and look to Belfast, his birthplace.
Bryan MacDonald is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and teacher. He wrote for Irish Independent and Daily Mail.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IndoCanadians.ca.