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Edition 38 Volume 5 - October 18, 2024

The Northern Ireland and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts

Different conflict, different solution  - Sammy Smooha
Binationalism is a quack panacea for the quarrels between the Jews and Palestinians.

When foes become friendly: political prisoners  - Peter Shirlow
The Belfast (Good Friday) agreement of 1998 sought to release all politically-motivated prisoners.

Similar dynamics propel both struggles  - Zahbia Yousuf
These struggles over territory and rights have followed the same rocky, turbulent path through eruptions of extreme violence to continued initiatives.

Different conflict, different solution
 Sammy Smooha

In 1998 a sustainable interim settlement (the Good Friday agreement) was reached in Northern Ireland. It can be argued that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is fundamentally similar to the Catholic-Protestant conflict and hence should be resolved in a similar manner. It is my position that beyond limited resemblance between the two cases, they differ substantially and require a different kind of settlement.

The success thus far of Northern Ireland in settling its conflict might have the following implications for Israel's failure. It can be argued that since both the British and the Jews are colonial settlers and Ulster and Israel are colonial entities, they hold lower moral ground and should yield to the original inhabitants and true owners of the land, the Irish and the Palestinians. It can further be posited that since partition has failed in Ireland, it is not the proper remedy for the Jewish-Palestinian strife. And it can be inferred that in view of its success in Northern Ireland, binationalism is also the right settlement for both the Israeli-Palestinian question and the division between the Palestinian Arab minority and Jewish majority in Israel in its pre-1967 borders.

I maintain that the differences between the two cases are much greater than the similarities. Hence the solutions should be different.

The first difference is colonialism. The British settlement of Ireland is a clear case of colonialism and decolonization, whereas the Jewish settlement of Palestine is essentially non-colonialist.

The British imposed their rule over the Irish, confiscated their lands, imposed the English language and culture on them but failed to subdue them, and managed to settle down permanently only in the north. They were ready to disengage from Ireland and to retreat to their secure English isle. Their hold on the north was an interim settlement, forced on them by the defiant Protestant settlers. Since the beginning of "the troubles" in 1968, the British have been ready and happy to cede Ulster to Ireland. They do not have historical and national claims to the colonized area of Ireland. The international community has not recognized British rights to either Ireland or Ulster.

Jewish settlement of Palestine appears as colonial, especially in the way the Palestinians have reacted to it. Yet the Jews settled in Palestine because they see it as the Land of Israel. They have preexisting religious, historical and national ties and rights to the land that have been acknowledged by the international community and confirmed in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British Mandate of Palestine of 1922, and the United Nations partition resolution of 1947. Jews cannot withdraw from Israel because this is the only Jewish state in existence, whereas the British withdrew from Ireland and can withdraw from Ulster and still keep intact their national state of Great Britain. Unlike Ulster, Israel is not a colonial state. Jews are, therefore, not inferior to the Palestinians in their claims to statehood in part of the shared area.

The second difference, partition, is inappropriate for Ireland but appropriate for the Land of Israel-Palestine. Great Britain accepted the right of the Irish to the entire Irish isle in 1916 and was prepared to pull out of all of Ireland. Yet it was difficult to execute the decision because of the strong Protestant lobby in Ulster. Partition invoked a bloody civil war among the Irish, ending with the victory of the moderates who temporarily resigned themselves to partition. However, Ireland continued to reject partition in its constitution and policies. In accordance with the 1998 agreement, Ireland amended its constitution by conditioning the achievement of united Ireland on consent, and in exchange it got a say and a role in Northern Ireland affairs. The Catholic minority in Ulster acquiesced to the agreement in return for a binational government and an option of united Ireland by consensus. The Irish in the south and north still insist on the termination of partition and on eventual unification.

In contrast, from the outset partition has been the suitable compromise for the rift over the Land of Israel-Palestine. It is the case of two peoples and two national movements staking genuine claims to the same territory. Until 1967 Jewish settlement of Palestine was territorially concentrated, leaving the West Bank and Gaza to a separate Palestinian state. All plans for the settlement of the conflict since 1937 have been based on partition. Since 1947 the international community has uninterruptedly endorsed two states for two peoples. Today there are concurring majorities for partition among both Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

To put it succinctly, partition is the true and long-term solution for the conflict between the Jews and Palestinians whereas it is a false and temporary remedy for the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics. The two-state solution of Israel/Palestine and a united Ireland are, nevertheless, hard to achieve for practical reasons.

The third difference, binationalism, is a practical interim settlement in Northern Ireland but a non-starter in Israel/Palestine or Israel proper. Binationalism was largely imposed on the Protestant majority that had run Ulster during the 1921-68 years as their private patrimony, excluding and discriminating against the Catholic minority. They surrendered because they had already lost their privileges and exclusive control over Ulster, feared abandonment by the British government, felt adversely affected by the continued decline of their numerical majority and were tempted by the promise of a united Ireland by consent. The Catholics accepted the agreement because of the obvious gains of power-sharing, the ineffectiveness of the strategy of violence and the freedom to pursue their national goal of a united Ireland by peaceful means. Power-sharing can work in Northern Ireland because the cultural and socioeconomic differences between the two communities are relatively small.

Binationalism is a quack panacea for the quarrels between the Jews and Palestinians. The two sides have always shown unwillingness to live together. Their separate and distinct nationalisms and identities are genuine. Israeli Jews are part of the worldwide Jewish people and established Israel as the homeland of all Jews, and similarly the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are part of the Palestinian people and pan-Arab nation. Binationalism for both sides would mean at least partial renunciation of their independent state-based nationalism. Moreover, Arabs and Jews have been fiercely combating each other. The disparities in culture, language, religion, and way of life and in possession of resources are enormous. Power-sharing between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is simply impractical.

In 2024, leaders from among the Palestinian-Arab minority in Israel issued four visionary documents in which they delegitimized Israel's Jewish character and demanded to transform it into a binational state alongside a future independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. This demand was perceived as a strategic threat and totally dismissed by the Jewish side.

In conclusion, the long-range solution to the two intractable conflicts is not the same because they are markedly different in nature. The right solution for Ulster is united Ireland. It is feasible and even probable. This is the centuries-old desire of the majority of the indigenous inhabitants of the Irish isle. The Catholics will reach a majority in the north in the foreseeable future and can democratically win a referendum on united Ireland. Protestants' resistance will diminish as Ireland is rapidly becoming a prosperous, secular and tolerant state, and the border dividing Ulster and Ireland loses its meaning as a result of Ireland's involvement in Ulster's affairs and the growing unification of the European Union. The Protestant minority may continue to enjoy power-sharing in Ulster within a united Ireland. Great Britain would not mind because it has nothing to lose while getting a chance to correct the historical and moral wrong of divided Ireland.

The proper historical, moral and long-term solution for the dispute between the Jews and Palestinians is partition. Partition is feasible as shown in Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and in the dismantling of Jewish settlements there. Withdrawal from the West Bank is difficult but possible. There are still many divisive issues to settle in order to reach a comprehensive settlement--security, Jewish settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem and limitations on the sovereignty of a Palestinian state. Partition remains, however, the only solution.

Yet Israelis and Palestinians can draw three vital lessons from the Irish case: keep alive the hope of a negotiated settlement, do not let the Jewish settlers stay in a future Palestinian state and welcome international mediation and intervention.- Published 18/10/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Sammy Smooha is a professor of sociology, the director of the annual project "Index of Arab-Jewish Relations" in the Jewish-Arab Center, and dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences qat the University of Haifa.

When foes become friendly: political prisoners
 Peter Shirlow

Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is a peculiar place. It is one of the few cities in Europe that is divided by walls between populations that are ideologically divided, making it more like Nicosia or Jerusalem. It endured a significant political conflict despite being located within a liberal democracy. Peculiarly, several wall murals within Irish republican communities (those supporting Irish reunification) depict support for Palestine, demand the boycott of Israeli goods and describe the "insidious nature of Israeli aggression". In response to this, some loyalists (those supporting Northern Ireland's constitutional place within the United Kingdom) fly Israeli flags.

The latter do so for a variety of reasons. These include reacting to republican support for the PLO as an act of separation and a general sense that "Israelis know how to deal with terrorists". In some cases, there are antecedents based upon Old Testament scripture and a notion that the Protestant people (mostly pro-British) constitute one of the lost tribes of Israel. For republicans, support for the PLO is based upon a shared narrative of colonization, oppression and marginalization from social and economic wellbeing. Chaim Herzog, Israel's president from 1983 to 1993, was born in Belfast. There is a story that when he was once cornered by some Protestant youth he was asked what religion he was. "A Jew," he replied. One of his inquisitors responded, "Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?"

However, one of the most peculiar scenes in contemporary Belfast is that of former prisoners and combatants from both loyalist and republican backgrounds enjoying a drink or meal together. A strong and endurable part of conflict transformation has been the role played by these former foes in providing leadership to their respective constituencies despite the retention of clear ideological differences. This model of reconciliation and the search for mutual agreement over the need to reduce and remove violence is of importance not only within Northern Ireland but beyond.

As part of the political solution that embedded the peace process in Northern Ireland, the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement of 1998 sought to release all politically-motivated prisoners. In contrast, when the PLO and the government of Israel signed the Oslo accords in September 1993 there was no comprehensive release of Palestinian prisoners. In a sense, an open wound--the suffering caused by incarceration upon those imprisoned and their families--was closed in Northern Ireland and left open in Palestine. In the former instance, the peace process was firmly embedded among former combatants who could locate their release as a concession. In that sense, they understood the peace process as a situation within which compromise was key. There was, as in Israel, opposition to such releases based upon the same argument that such persons had "blood on their hands". But the architects (many of whom were former political prisoners) of the Belfast agreement took risks in that prisoners were released prior to the decommissioning of weaponry.

The decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was not directly tied to prisoner releases. Instead it was linked to the reduction of British state forces, removal of some army barracks and other modes of surveillance. In essence, the Belfast agreement was built upon the notion of equal representation and the British state undertook a series of reforms to reflect this general commitment. The British state, unlike its Israeli counterpart, understood that concessions to paramilitary groups strengthened the hand of those within such groups who wished to pursue a political path and undermined those intent upon continuing along the path of violence. One wonders what the situation would now be in Palestine if Mahmoud Abbas had been able to gain the freedom of Palestinian prisoners. We could probably be assured that his status would have risen.

Direct comparisons between Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine cannot always be made. The level of violence in each place was different, the state in each instance has operated differently and the imprisonment of both loyalists and republicans made the issue of political imprisonment different. Moreover, the imprisonment of some 650,000 Palestinians (around 10 percent of the Palestinian population) compared to 30,000 loyalists and republicans (around two percent of the Northern Ireland population) indicates a further substantial difference.

Despite such differences, lessons can be learned from Northern Ireland. Firstly, the British state understood that prisoners formed a part of communities and that their perpetual imprisonment would undermine meaningful peace building. Secondly, prisoners understood that they could continue their struggle via non-violent means. The affording of peace monies from the EU provided many former prisoners with the opportunity to enter into community-based employment and from there continue to represent their community and in so doing aim to challenge political, economic and social inclusion.

Thirdly, loyalist and republican former prisoners have worked together in order to build interdependence and to challenge those from within each constituency who would undermine peace-building. They have also been at the forefront of opening up relationships with victims' groups, have worked together to stop inter-community rioting and have built better relationships between their communities and statutory agencies. In many ways they have left open-mouthed those who represent them as a cabal intent upon mere destruction and the undermining of democracy. If anything, former prisoners have assumed the key role in building peace and democracy and all of this without any loss of ideology or national identity.

As one former prisoner told me recently, "My aims are the same but my approach is different. I can sit with loyalists. They may never be my friend but with them I can be friendly." Maybe this is a lesson for us all.- Published 18/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Peter Shirlow is a senior lecturer in law at Queen's University Belfast. In 2024 he co-authored Belfast: Segregation, Violence and the City (Pluto Press: London). In January 2024 his book with Kieran McEvoy, Beyond the Wire: Former Political Prisoners and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland will be published by Pluto Press.

Similar dynamics propel both struggles
 Zahbia Yousuf

On the surface it would seem foolish to try and draw comparisons between the Northern Ireland and Palestine-Israel conflicts. It is true that they have both plagued their societies for decades and have been characterized by extreme levels of violence between divided peoples, but as many would point out, they have taken place on opposite sides of the world, in vastly different cultures and in different political, economic, social and historical contexts. The peoples, the causes, the ideals are too varying for there to be any basis for serious analysis.

But the streets of Derry and Belfast tell another story. In Derry, the Palestinian flag flies alongside the "Free Derry" flag in the Bog side. In Protestant areas of Belfast, slogans despairingly proclaiming "Adams is our Arafat" decorate the walls separating Catholic and Protestant. During the hunger strikes in the early 1980s, Palestinian prisoners protested the death of Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands with parallel hunger strikes. Irish solidarity murals back in the early 1980s showed an IRA fighter and a PLO fighter standing in front of their respective flags, holding one hand up clinching the same weapon, with the caption "One Struggle".

Struggle is a term that aptly describes the root of these conflicts. Strip away the arguments of religious divides, of historical claims and colonial past, and we see something much more simple and basic--the struggle for sovereign power over the same territory between rival states or mobilized ethno-national groups. Fundamental differences over national identity or ethno-national dimensions plague the lands that both sides lay claim to.

In both Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine individual needs, including not only obvious material ones, such as food, shelter, physical safety and physical wellbeing, but also, and very centrally, psychological needs, such as identity, security, recognition, autonomy, self-esteem and a sense of justice, became articulated through important identity groups--Catholic, Protestant, Israeli and Palestinian. The desire for security is as keenly felt from Portadown to Sderot, and for the recognition and realization of civil and political rights from Newry to Jenin. The same rhetoric echoes across the Mediterranean in the narratives of both sides: the occupier and the occupied, the settler and the disenfranchised.

These struggles over territory and rights have followed the same rocky, turbulent path through eruptions of extreme violence to continued initiatives, some good, some bad, some successful, other less so, in an attempt to curb the violence and find lasting solutions. The intuitive solution for disputes of a territorial nature has been through addressing border demarcations or the separation of hostile peoples into sovereign, or at least autonomous, territorial units. This has formed the basis of most peace agreements that have been proposed and signed. Considering the various peace initiatives undertaken in both cases it is telling that the details and major principles laid out in them have not changed significantly as the years have passed. John Hume, leader of the SDLP party in Northern Ireland, has often referred to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, as "Sunningdale [a power sharing agreement proposed in 1973] for slow learners".

What has changed is the attitude of communities and political factions toward these compromised solutions. Communities can only withstand a battering for so long; the realization that their needs will not be achieved through violence and resistance propels them to push political parties to thrash out the big issues through negotiation with the other side. And so a process toward peace is tentatively initiated in which, slowly, hardened positions are softened, dialogue between rivals is created, and zero sum gains have given way to more pragmatic and compromising positions. Of course extremist groups have always lingered on the fringes, rattling the cages of the peace process, but as support for violence weakens and demands for peace strengthen over time, spoilers often realize that the political route is the only game in town. Hamas and the IRA have made significant steps toward political pragmatism while, as the settler and Orange movements are finding out, others may be dragged along with political concession if they are not willing subscribers.

Of course it is not a simple and smooth transition from war to peace. Many would ask why there is peace in Northern Ireland and not in the Middle East. It is true that regional influences have played a large part--the nurturing eye of the EU and the proclamation that Britain had no strategic interest in Northern Ireland played a large part. Furthermore, the strong support for the Republican movement from America was instrumental in legitimizing that cause. Such support and regional stability has been lacking in the Middle East. Internally as well, stated political strategies have been harder to translate into reality in Palestine/Israel. The long term objective of peace has been long frustrated by the short term objectives of political survival of political actors--the clientalism Yasser Arafat brought to the West Bank did not match the determination and vision of Gerry Adams, while successive faltering Israeli coalitions have not been able to command support like Ian Paisley.

It may be too simplistic to ask Tony Blair to wave his magic wand of peace over the Middle East as he has been assumed to have done in Northern Ireland (we should not forgot that before Blair's premiership there had been over 10 years of secret talks with Republicans). But while the issues being hammered out across the table may differ and the solutions may look different on paper, the dynamics that exist are not so dissimilar. Strong leaders are needed to lead bitter and skeptical communities, spurred on by regional influences, through the tangle of violence, despair and mistrust. It's easier said than done.- Published 18/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Zahbia Yousuf is a PhD student at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. Her research focuses on a comparative study of peace processes in Northern Ireland, Kashmir and Israel/Palestine.

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