China has accused the United States of “ignoring the suffering” of the Palestinians after Washington blocked a UN Security Council meeting. The US is one of Israel’s closest allies and has backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline view of the Palestinian issue but is it time for Israel to learn lessons from the Northern Ireland conflict?
In the 1970s and 1980s there seemed to be two conflicts which were utterly intractable – The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Both generated horrific terrorist attacks.
The Provisional IRA regularly bombed civilian targets on mainland Britain, including pubs, department stores and financial centres and shot dead off-duty police officers in Northern Ireland, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and various Palestinian splinter groups hijacked passenger jets, bombed Israeli targets and in 1982 tried to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to London.
In 1987 the first intifada – or uprising – broke out with Palestinian youths in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip hurling stones and petrol bombs at Israel Defence Force (IDF) troops who would respond with bullets.
Spiral Of Violence
Two years later Abd al-Hadi Ghanim, a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, grabbed the steering on a bus heading into Jerusalem, sending it into a ravine and killing 16 Israeli commuters. Miraculously Ghanim survived and was later jailed, only to be released in 2011 in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
From last 4 days, I’m getting threats & abuses on my social media accounts as I #StandWithIsrael. Here are few examples
— Anshul Saxena (@AskAnshul) May 14, 2021
The hatred in Northern Ireland – between pro-British Protestants and Irish Catholics – and between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine was deep-rooted and visceral.
There seemed no political or military solution to either conflict.
The IRA wanted a united Ireland which the all-powerful British state would never concede and the Palestinians wanted their own state, although many of them wanted to wind the clock back to 1947 and refused to even recognise Israel.
There was deadlock and endless bloodshed in both conflicts.
Between 1969 and 1998 around 3,600 people died in The Troubles in Northern Ireland while the death toll was far higher in the Middle East between 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza during the Six Day War, and 1994.
Hope Springs Eternal
In the early 1990s the first shoots of hope sprung up in both conflicts.
In 1991 the Madrid conference, which was co-sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union, involved tentative talks between Israeli and Palestinian delegations.
Meanwhile the British government, under John Major, reached out in secret and exchanged “position papers” with the IRA’s Martin McGuinness in 1993, shortly after two children were killed when bombs went off in litter bins in the centre of Warrington, near Manchester.
The peace process in the Middle East moved quicker, with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signing the Oslo peace accords on the lawn of the White House in Washington in September 1993.
The Oslo accords called for Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank and set up a Palestinian National Authority.
But contentious issues like security, borders, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the right-to-return of Palestinians who had left Israel during the 1947 war of independence were all put on ice, with a second phase of negotiations planned.
Nobel Peace Prize, But Then…
Rabin, Arafat and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
Back in Northern Ireland, loyalist pro-British paramilitaries were killing more people than the IRA by this stage and many of their victims were innocent members of the Roman Catholic community, many of whom were targeted because they were related to figures within IRA or Sinn Fein.
One of those was Roseanne Mallon, 76, who was gunned down as she sat watching television in her home in County Tyrone.
Miss Mallon’s killers are believed to have been members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), led by Billy Wright, a paramilitary leader known as “King Rat”.
Did ‘Dirty War’ Make IRA Surrender?
It has been alleged the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary colluded with these loyalist death squads in a “dirty war” which eventually drove the IRA and Sinn Fein to the negotiating table.
In August 1994 the IRA announced a ceasefire and two months later the Combined Loyalist Military Command responded by saying the UVF and the UDA would also lay down their weapons. The LVF noticeably said nothing.
But just as peace was breaking out in Northern Ireland, the situation in the Middle East deteriorated.
On 25 February 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a New York-born Jewish settler, gunned down 29 Palestinian worshippers at a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron before being overpowered and clubbed to death.
Endless Supply Of Suicide Bombers
Six weeks later a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up and killed eight Israelis on a bus in Afula in northern Israel.
It was the beginning of a series of deadly suicide bombings organised by Hamas, an emerging Palestinian Islamist movement who drew most of their strength from Gaza.
In November 1995 – two months after negotiating the second stage of the Oslo accords – Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist, Yigal Amir, moments after giving a speech at a peace rally in Jerusalem.
Back in Britain, the IRA broke their ceasefire an hour before they detonated a huge truck bomb in London’s Docklands, killing two people and causing £150 million worth of damage to South Quay and Canary Wharf.
In June 1996 the IRA bombed Manchester’s Arndale Centre, causing huge damage, but because they had phoned in a warning there were no deaths or injuries.
Political Desire To Make Peace
Tony Blair won a landslide election in May 1997 and promised to complete the peace process in Northern Ireland. Two months later the IRA declared a second and final ceasefire and on 10 April 1998 – Good Friday – a peace deal was finally agreed, bringing an end to The Troubles.
In August 1998 the Omagh bombing by a dissident organisation, the Real IRA, killed 29 people but simply strengthened the resolve of most people in Northern Ireland to push through the peace process.
The agreement was ratified by referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and 23 years later peace still reigns on the island of Ireland, despite occasional flare-ups.
No Such Peace In The Middle East
Back in Israel/Palestine, the peace process has stumbled and fizzled out.
Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO and its biggest faction, Fatah, fell ill and died, aged 75, in November 2004. Some still believe he was poisoned by the Israelis.
His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, has lacked Arafat’s charisma or leadership qualities and Fatah has steadily lost ground to Hamas.
Rabin was succeeded by Shimon Peres but in 1996 he was defeated in a general election by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
Netanyahu lost power in 1999 but regained it in 2009 and has remained in power ever since, taking a hardline against the Palestinians and in particular Hamas, which fires rockets into Israel whenever it is angered.
The US remains Israel’s staunchest ally and none of the last four occupants of the White House have shown any real inclination towards resurrecting the Middle East peace process, which is well and truly stalled.
While the Oslo accords were between Israel and PLO/Fatah, any future agreement would need to be between Israel and Fatah/Hamas.
Hamas has softened its stance a little – in 2017 it finally accepted the reality of Israel’s existence, but stopped short of recognising Israel.
Netanyahu is unlikely to agree to talks with them and it would be political suicide for any Israeli politician to negotiate with Hamas when they are still lobbing rockets at civilian targets.
Yet it would have been highly unpopular in the 1990s for a British politician to suggest talking to the IRA, let alone letting their bombers and assassins walk free from prison.
But that is what Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam did and the result was peace.