Saturday, September 24, 2011

Taking Sides


Given that the former Palestinian Liberation Organization is closer, politically, to the militant Irish Republican Army (indeed, the PLO and IRA once trained together in Syrian and Libyan terrorist training camps), I feel somewhat qualified to comment on the imminent bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Until quite recently, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland seemed at least as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long ago as the 16th century, when Henry VIII reformed the Church of England, Protestants have been settling in Northern Ireland. When the Republic of Ireland was created in 1949 (Israel was established only a year before), six counties in the north were retained as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Radical Irish Republicans, who wanted the island united under the Republic, saw the protestant loyalists in the north as invaders and eventually formed the Provisional IRA in 1969 (the Arab-Israeli War was in 1967), which conducted acts of sabotage at first, which increased in frequency and savagery when the "Troubles" began in Northern Ireland after the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, provoking the British government to deploy its army two days later to prevent rioting from escalating into outright civil war.

For many years some Irish-Americans supported the IRA either openly or covertly, believing that the cause of the Troubles was a war of occupation being carried out by the British Army, and that the only solution was to convince the British government to withdraw their troops. More astute observers, however, understood that if the British Army were to suddenly withdraw, a brief but bloody civil war would take place, causing thousands of refugees to flee the violence into the Irish Republic or to nearby Scotland.

I came of age during the Troubles and was dimly aware of their implications. I had a copy of the 1916 Irish Rebellion Declaration tacked to the back of my bedroom door, and I listened to Irish rebel songs, foremost of which was Paul McCartney's stridently obtuse anthem "Give Ireland Back to the Irish". After several years of watching the ups and - mostly - the downs of the Troubles from the safety of America, I had to simply quit and accept that nothing was as simple as I once thought. I endured too many Irish-Americans who talk about the "old country" as if there were any such place, drinking their black-and-tans on St. Patrick's Day. I once believed there was enough hatred between the Protestants and Catholics to fuel the conflict for another five hundred years. I began to be thankful that my maternal great-grandfather got on that boat and left Ireland behind for good. When he arrived, he told the immigration official his name, which sounded to the man like "Cassiday". He had the good sense to drop the "O" as well.


But sometimes even revolutionaries want nothing more than to live a normal life. A new generation in Northern Ireland, fed up with the violence, has decided that they are ready to accept some form of coexistence, even if some of the old inequalities persist. In a move that would've been thought inconceivable even in the mid-1990s, the IRA announced they were renouncing violence altogether, and the "Good Friday" Agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998. That agreement still stands as of today. The Irish are united in their rejection of violence and their commitment to coexistence. For me, it has been an almost incredible blast of fresh air from a country whose history has been a litany of doom and gloom for too long.

Coexistence in Israel is by now an impossible dream. A separate state for Palestinians is the only conceivable solution at the moment. Along with disappointment, this state of affairs leaves me feeling quite a bit resentful toward both sides in the conflict, since successive American governments have made such a big deal out of it for so long. I am sick and tired of the same news year-in and year-out from Israel. The U.S. has invested so much in Israel (not to mention Mubarak's Egypt, Assad's Syria, and Gaddafi's Libya) that it's a shame they cannot occasionally do what we ask them to do. I also feel that, if the Irish in Ulster can get over everything they've been through in the last forty years and get along with one another, so can the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis seem to be saying, with some justification, "since you couldn't coexist with us for two thousand years, we will not coexist with anyone either!" But, try as they will, they can't make the Palestinians go away.

Recently, Israeli citizens took part in a mass (nude) demonstration on the shores of the Dead Sea to make a point about the environmental problems facing the body of water. A few weeks ago, they protested in much greater numbers, fully clothed, against the rise in the cost of living in Israel. If that many Israelis were protesting the existence of the biggest open air prison in the world - Gaza - perhaps their leaders would be more willing to negotiate with the Palestinians.

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