The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been often entrenched in popular consciousness as a perennial conflict, an ages-old struggle between Jews and Muslims for the holiest stretch of land on Earth and depicted as an incredibly complex and tangled web that only careful diplomacy can help guide towards a two-state solution.
However, in recent years, it seemed possible that the conflict was perhaps in its final stage, with an increasingly confident Israel, buoyed by increasing diplomatic ties with the Arab world and the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in early 2017, believing that perhaps they may finally emerge triumphant.
In a New Statesmen article published in February 2020 following the publication of the Trump administration’s highly contentious peace plan for the region, Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer mused whether the Palestinian cause was finally beginning to die a quiet death, akin to the fate of the Tibetans under Chinese rule:
“The Palestinians have fallen into disarray. Their semi-autonomous regions are split, with Gaza under the rule of Islamist Hamas and the West Bank enclaves controlled by the Palestinian Authority’s 84-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas, last elected to a four-year term in 2005. Their supporters in the West may have a strong online presence, and can occasionally muster thousands to march in the streets of London, but their hopes of exerting significant pressure on Israel have been confounded. The Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) campaign, now in its 15th year, was designed to replicate the sanctions against apartheid South Africa, but failed to make the tiniest dent in Israel’s burgeoning GDP and yielded only the occasional cancellation of a concert.”
A year on, however, it seems as if fortunes have drastically changed.
The recent upsurge in violence, triggered by the Israeli storming of the third holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, as well as an expected Israeli Supreme Court decision regarding the fate of several Palestinian families in the predominately Arab Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, has devolved into the worst in the region for at least seven years and perhaps even the worst since the Second Intifada.
Pro-Palestinian sentiment in the West which had generally been limited to left-wing mavericks has arguably made its greatest breakthrough in years as a result. Rather than being increasingly alienated and continuing apace to the fate of the Tibetans, it has instead enjoyed a popular resurgence internationally, not merely from its traditional left-wing support base, but even a growing degree of mainstream recognition.
John Oliver, one of America’s myriad of liberal late night TV show hosts, for instance in a recent segment of his show Last Week Tonight, likened Israeli occupation to apartheid and their recent bombing of Gaza as a war crime. This alone is an unprecedented escalation in mainstream opinion, even in comparison to the criticism of Israel’s actions in the 2014 Gaza conflict by Jon Stewart, where neither “apartheid” or “war crimes” were explicitly mentioned in such a manner.
Amongst the Democratic Party in America, its burgeoning progressive faction has become more vocally critical of its own party establishment’s support of Israel, which may indicate a future transformation of the party’s generally unequivocal pro-Israel stance. With American support of Israel generally being bipartisan, increasing rifts within the country’s current ruling party regarding what was once a virtually unanimously accepted backbone of American foreign policy is without doubt a momentous sea change.
Here in Ireland, traditionally considered one of the most pro-Palestinian countries in Europe due to the long history of solidarity between the Palestinian cause and that of Irish nationalists in the North, pressure will likely once again mount on the Irish Government to finally enact the Occupied Territories Bill, which effectively would ban trade with illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Bill, which was passed by both the Dáil and Seanad in 2019, has been blocked by the Irish Government on legal advice believing the Bill to contravene EU law.
How such international and domestic pressure on Israel materialises in both the short and long-term, only time will tell, but it is becoming increasingly evident that Israel may be fighting an unwinnable war.
The “peace deal of the century” heralded by Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have rewarded Israel near total control of the city of Jerusalem and large swathes of the Jordan Valley, a symbolic victory for Zionism. A year on, the Israelis instead have been given unprecedented sectarian rioting between Jews and Arabs within its own internationally recognised borders and the return once more of internecine rocket fire by Hamas towards Tel Aviv.
How Should Ireland Stand?
The Israel-Palestine conflict has long been in many aspects a parallel to the Irish struggle, and both Palestinians and Israelis have historically looked to Ireland.
The Zionist Irgun paramilitary of the 1940s had a strong admiration for the IRA of the War of Independence and sought to emulate its guerrilla tactics in its war against British rule in Mandatory Palestine. The nom de guerre of Yitzhak Shamir, who would become a future Israeli Prime Minister was named after Michael Collins. Such fascination with the Irish struggle eventually led to them being regarded as the “Zionist Sinn Féin”.
Irish popular opinion however gravitated firmly towards the Palestinians, the shared ignominy of colonisation, foreign occupation and partitioning of its territory forging stronger bonds of brotherhood than any shared anti-British sentiment with Zionism did.
Some nationalists may be indifferent to the outcome of a foreign conflict thousands of miles away that is regarded as having little if any relevance to Ireland or even hostile to what may be seen as creeping internationalism within a movement that should remain solely dedicated to Irish affairs. This is part of an interesting debate as to where Irish nationalists should stand regarding solidarity or co-operation with other nationalist movements.
During the Boer War, there was significant pro-Boer sentiment in Ireland and Irishmen formed one of the largest contingents of foreign volunteers that served alongside the Boer armies against the British, the most notable example being the Irish commandos under the leadership of Captain John MacBride, later to be executed for his role in the Easter Rising.
One of the members of these brigades, J. Donnolly, in a letter to the Irish News in 1901, wrote rather bluntly:
“It was not for the love of the Boer we were fighting; it was for the hatred of the English…”
But there was undoubtedly genuine sympathy and admiration for the Boers that did not seem to purely stem from anti-English sentiment. Maud Gonne, who would later and rather infamously go on to marry MacBride, wrote in the United Irishman in 1900:
“There are many, for all who suffer under England’s grinding tyranny…The heroes of the South African Republics are showing us that courage counts more than numbers. They are breaking down the falsehood of England’s greatness, that falsehood on which the British Empire has been built, and the nations who accepted the legend of England’s might look on in wonder, and some in shame, and all in admiration and delight.”
Arthur Griffith, in a rather oft cited quote, once famously said:
“If there are men who believe that the path to redemption for mankind is through universalism, cosmopolitanism or any other ism other than nationalism, I am not of their company.”
But it must be noted that Griffith was not necessarily advocating for insularism or even against solidarity with other nationalist movements. He was staunchly pro-Boer himself, having visited South Africa during the war and being an admirer of Paul Kruger. It is also apparent in his most famous work, The Resurrection of Hungary, his admiration of the Hungarian nationalist movement against Austrian rule.
It is therefore not a crime to have sympathy with nations other than our own; in fact, it is perfectly sensible and even sometimes advantageous to the interests of Ireland. It may be said that some of those who support Palestine do so at the ignorance of their own country, although many support Palestine precisely because of the history of this country. There is no doubt some quarters of hypocrisy amongst those who will speak of Palestine in ways they may not of Ireland, but that does not mean we cannot or should not hold the Palestinians in high regard.
The Palestinians have a right to their country and the Irish government should not only enact the Occupied Territories Bill but officially recognise the state of Palestine. To express our support for such measures is no distraction from our own affairs.