The TV images that appeared on Saturday 7th October last year are seared into the memory of those of us who watched in disbelief on that afternoon. For many the grotesque display and abuse of the body of a German girl (Shani Nicole Louk), followed by the image of a female Israeli soldier, her trousers bloodstained, being lead away filled us with horror and anger. We don’t accept women being treated in that way and wanted to signal our disgust at such brutality and support Israeli responses.
Some of us, who are old enough to remember the tit-for-tat pattern of sectarian killings in our N. Ireland troubles, were immediately anxious that an Israeli overreaction might occur. (Lookup the sequence of tit-for-tat killings in 1975 leading to Kingsmills in Feb 1976.) Past history of Israeli conflicts such as 2008/9 where the death of 13 Israelis led to the killing of 1,166 Palestinians or the 2014 conflict where 71 Israelis and 2,205 Palestinians were killed, signalled the likely escalation and sadly our fears have been borne out.
Within my unionist community, sympathy lies almost entirely with Israel. In part this is because Republicans in the past had links with Palestinian ‘terrorists’ and our enemy’s Palestinian friends are expected to become our enemy. Additionally, seeing Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) being attacked as they patrol Gaza and the West Bank reminds us of our years of supporting our troops while they were patrolling the streets of NI. (We tend to ignore the uncomfortable parallels between the Israeli argument, that they own the land & had a right to take it from the Palestinians because the Jews were there first from 900BC – 400AD, and the Irish republican argument about sending us ‘Planters’ home because our ancestors have only been here for a few hundred years having taken the land from the native Irish.)
I am criticised by unionist friends, sometimes quite angrily, when I try to discuss comparisons between Gaza and Israel and our N. Ireland Troubles. No two conflicts are identical but there are striking similarities.
Both conflicts have their roots in the aftermath of the British Empire. We had a struggle about nationality and territorial control, overlapped with sectarian religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants while they have a struggle about nationality and territorial control overlapped with sectarian religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. (There are other factors in each conflict but these are central.)
Additionally, unionists who are in their late 50s will remember the days when unionists exasperated by the continuous IRA threat would talk about ‘just getting it over with’ and advocating all out war against republicans, in much the same way that Israelis now support fighting on until Hamas is destroyed. I even remember unionist talk of paying Catholic/Nationalists to leave N. Ireland as one solution, which is kinder than the destruction being visited on Gaza today, but not something any sane person took seriously. The history of population exchange between India and Pakistan shows the potential for genocide once such actions take root.
It is claimed that the hatred in Palestine is more intense and has been going on for longer. I am not sure about this, but it is certainly true that what is happening in Palestine is on a much greater scale. Our Omagh bomb with 29 deaths (including a woman pregnant with twins) shocked the world but is small compared to the 150+ daily death toll of Palestinians under Israeli bombardment. The numbers are different, but the suffering of the bereaved is similar and yet we found relative peace by overcoming our reluctance to negotiate with our enemies. I believe the UK government should use the example of N. Ireland to help Israel dismantle the barriers that prevent them from finding their own peace.
I remember the intense anger within the unionist community towards John Hume when he began having talks with the IRA at a time when the IRA were still killing people. He made a first attempt in 1983 and then later in 1988 and again more publicly in the Hume-Adams talks from 1993. Ultimately these talks lead to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 after 15 years of behind the scenes talks. Suggesting talks with elected Hamas politicians now would be every bit as unpopular but is the alternative chosen by Israel any more likely to bring peace?
Israeli missiles reducing Gaza to rubble is dramatic and helps keep Netanyahu in power. Sending bulldozers into the West Bank to dig up roads and destroy the infrastructure of Palestinian communities provides the illusion of showing who is in control, but simply drives more people towards violence. We know the statistics are disputed but already Israel has killed over 22,000 people in Gaza, including over 7000 children and 110 Journalists. Anyone not supporting a ceasefire now has a duty to explain how will more killings will improve the security of Israel.
|Israeli bulldozers destroy streets in Jenin (West Bank not Gaza) on 9th Jan 2024
|The use of water supply as a weapon
|Israeli bulldozers destroy streets in Jenin 4th July 2023
|The restriction of water to Palestinians – August 2023
|Israel fills Palestinian wells with concrete.
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.