Unionism and Israel: Holy Land is not a hotter version of Ulster…

As a liberal unionist, I found the local political reaction to the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid Flotilla depressingly predictable. While Sinn Fein and SDLP MLA’s condemned the raid, Unionist politicians, foremost among them Jonathan Bell, Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson, stood foursquare in defence of Israel’s actions.

Even the mild-mannered Danny Kennedy could not help mentioning that in his opinion “a section of the unionist population have more than a sneaking regard for the manner in which the Israeli Government defends Israel and puts its security considerations above all others”.

Only the left-leaning Fred Cobain, who last year facilitated the launch of an Irish Congress of Trade Unions report on Israel and Palestine at Stormont last year where the ICTU called for a boycott of Israeli goods expressed any unionist criticism of the IDF’s actions, branding them, along with much of the rest of the world, as “piracy”, although he did not repeat these views in the Assembly chamber.

The roots of republican and nationalist support for the Palestinian cause are relatively well understood. For the republican movement in particular the Palestinian struggle was seen, alongside that of the ANC in South Africa and ETA in the Basque Country as providing the international context of a global left-wing liberation movement against colonialism and its legacy for the IRA’s armed campaign. Indeed, one famous Belfast mural showed the IRA and PLO as brothers-in-arms, clutching a rocket launcher, with the simple caption proclaiming  “one struggle”.

The SDLP, whilst abhorring terrorism at home and abroad, nevertheless has also consistently expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people. In contrast little serious examination has been made of Unionism’s traditional support for the Israeli position, other than as simple knee-jerk opposition to the nationalist stance. Whilst this may not be entirely untrue, I believe there is a little more to it than that.

I believe the roots of Unionist solidarity with Israel lie in evangelical protestantism. As a people brought up in a bible-centred, old testament-heavy tradition, hearing at church, home, sunday school, and via the loyal orders the tales of Moses visiting the ten plagues upon Egypt and freeing the Hebrews from slavery, Joshua leading his people to the promised land and tearing down the walls of Jericho with a blast of trumpets, Gideon defeating the Midianites with a mere 300 men, of David slaying Goliath, and of how against the odds Jehovah would repeatedly deliver his chosen people from the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, and Philistines, it is little wonder that god-fearing unionists would naturally favour the modern-day state of Israel against the descendants of its ancient enemies.

Indeed in the case of Nelson McCausland that sense of solidarity goes even further as a British Israelite, believing the population of the British Isles to be largely descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel and that thus the peoples of the two lands are in fact kith and kin.

Whilst most unionists may not identity quite so closely with Israel as Mr McCausland, many unionists nevertheless do see parallels with Israel, perceiving both as divinely-ordained settler peoples (indeed not merely as a people, but “the people”) in a permanent struggle for survival against hostile natives bent on their destruction.

From this viewpoint, the respective struggles against the IRA, PLO and latterly Hamas were part of a common “war on terror” long before September 11th 2001, and indeed during the two conflicts Unionist and Israeli politicians often seemed to say much the same things, sharing the same discourse of democracy versus terrorism, whether in defence of “little israel” or “our wee country”, in the face of a seemingly unfriendly media which had made world opinion largely sympathetic to their enemies. The earlier quote from Danny Kennedy also reflects another of the main wellsprings for unionist admiration of Israel, namely its hardline security policy to fight fire with fire, paying back every act of Palestinian violence fifty or a hundred times over, in the process regularly committing Bloody Sunday-type incidents such as that on the Mavi Mamara with barely a shrug, much less regret.

As Sammy Wilson laments in the News Letter, “It is just a pity the government of the UK did not show the same determination against the IRA…” the implication being that if only the British government had followed the Israeli example and took the gloves off, a security solution could have been achieved and the IRA clearly defeated militarily, making the compromises of the peace process unnecessary.

The fact that despite over forty years of wielding the IDF sledgehammer the Palestinian nut has yet to crack, and Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative piece and stability for some years now while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more bitter and entrenched than ever does not seem to dissuade them of this belief.

Finally, facile as it sounds, it does seem that in the tribal, zero-sum nature of traditional Northern Ireland politics from which we are only just slowly starting to emerge, that for many ordinary unionists, with little knowledge beyond TV bulletins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the sight of Palestinian flags across the peaceline is a good enough reason to put up the Israeli flags on their lamp posts.

For Unionist and nationalist politicians debating the conflict serves as a proxy for own, adopting them almost as favourite football clubs, indulging the old arguments that relative peace and power-sharing have made more difficult to do between themselves, providing endless opportunities for “whataboutery” and dwelling on the suffering of their chosen side and the atrocities of their opponents whilst ignoring the grievances of the latter and the sins of the former.

Indeed, I am convinced that were the Assembly to debate, say, Western Sahara, Unionists would automatically support Morocco and Nationalists the Polisario, that is, if any MLA’s had ever heard of Western Sahara.

Whilst I can understand why most unionists support Israel, as a unionist it is a stance I do not share, primarily in remembrance of the victims of Zionist terrorism against the British authorities in Palestine prior to 1948. To provide just a few examples, in November 1944 while the British Army (including the Jewish Brigade) fought to free Europe from Nazi tyranny and thus end the Holocaust as soon as possible, the Dublin-born Walter Guinness, 1st Lord Moyne, was murdered alongside his driver by two members of Lehi (the Stern gang).

One of the leading members of Lehi was Yitzhak Shamir, who so admired and wished to  emulate the IRA he even adopted the nom de guerre of Michael in tribute to Michael Collins, a fact both unionists and republicans seem to conveniently overlook. In 1947 the Irgun under the leadership of future Likud founder Menachem Begin, kidnapped and murdered Sergeants Mervyn Paice and Clifford Martin in reprisal for the execution of three Irgun terrorists. Even after independence Lehi assassinated UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte as he tried to end the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

And all this before mentioning the most infamous atrocity of all, the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun in which 91 people (including 17 Jews) were murdered, the vast majority of whom were civilians. In fairness I should point out that mainstream Zionism in the form of the Jewish Agency under David Ben-Gurion condemmed all these atrocities, yet the attitude of the State of Israel to these groups and their actions since has been less than commendable.

Both the Irgun and Lehi were quickly integrated into the IDF after independence, and under Menachem Begin the state instituted official service ribbons for members of the terror groups. Both Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin long preceded Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly on the path from terrorism to government, becoming Prime Ministers of Israel. And as recently as 2006 the current Likud leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so quick to condemn almost any act of Palestinian resistance as terrorism, attended a 60th anniversary celebration of the King David Hotel bombing, describing it, in words chillingly familiar to unionists, as “legitimate military action.”

Indeed the final insult came with the commerative plaque placed at the hotel, which implicitly blames the British authorities for the loss of life for not evacuating the hotel in time, the same hollow excuse used so often by the IRA down the years. For unionists to support a state which honours those who murdered members of the crown forces and whose hypocrite Prime Minister celebrates the massacre which inaugurated the post-war age of terror while defaming those on a mission of mercy, mown down for attempting to repel boarders by IDF commandos stooping to the level of Somali pirates, as “violent supporters of terrorism”, is a position without logic and consistency and one which I refuse to have any part of.

Whilst I have no love for Israel and great sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people, I have no illusions about Hamas or Fatah, whose past actions have been lesser in scale to Israel’s but no less in savagery. Seventeen years since the signing of the Oslo accords and ten since the last meaningful negotiations I believe a two state solution on mutually acceptable terms is no longer achievable or even desirable. I believe the only way for long-term peace to be achieved is for Israel and the occupied territories to come together as a new unitary bi-national state, a joint homeland of Israelis and Palestinians, the Union of Palestine and Israel (UPI) if you will. The UPI would have permanent equal representation of Israeli and Palestinians in parliament and government regardless of demographics, and a joint premiership modelled after our own OFMDFM.

The “separation barrier” would be removed, Israeli evictions of Palestinians from east Jerusalem would cease but Israeli west bank settlements allowed to remain. As one state there would be complete freedom of movement, Israelis could live in Gaza if they wished, Palestinians in Tel Aviv. Palestinians would have the right of return to the new state, but the Israeli law of return would continue to let Jews worldwide come and settle.

The new state would return the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebba Farms to Lebanon, sign peace treaties with all its neighbours (with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese satisified, how could Iran refuse?) and give up its nuclear weapons. The Israelis gain peace and the retention of their homeland at little cost, the Palestinians equality and stop being refugees in their own country. Whilst such a plan may seem utopian, so did the idea of re-establishing a jewish state at the time of the first Zionist congress in 1897.

Comparisons between Northern Ireland and Palestine/Israel only go so far. The Holy Land is not a hotter version of Ulster, Israelis are not Prods in skullcaps and Palestinians are not Republicans in teatowels, but if there is one lesson I believe they can take from Northern Ireland it is that until Israelis and Palestinians learn to live together they will continue to die together.