Northern Ireland and Israel took contrasting paths to address their respective struggles, but parallels remain in the turbulent histories of these two regions
NEARLY twenty years ago I was in Nazareth. I was on a project to conduct workshops with a mixed group of Israeli students, both Arab and Jewish.
The young people got on well together, on a level that included socialising and flirting. It was good to see.
On the last night we were all having dinner together in a restaurant when news came in that a Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, had been killed by the Israeli Air Force firing a missile from a helicopter at his car.
Then something happened. The mixed group of journalism students became two groups, the Arabs and the Jews drawing apart to discuss the implications of the attack.
This reminded me of a story I had heard from friends who had been in Kenya at the time of the first civil rights riots in Northern Ireland. They were part of a mixed group of Protestant and Catholic volunteer workers who worked and socialised together.
My friend Patricia who was one of them said that when the newspapers came through with reports of rioting in Derry, the groups split, ‘with the Catholics going to one end of the bar and the Protestants going to the other’.
There are times when divisions are easily ignored, times when they aren’t.
On a previous trip to Israel I had spent two weeks in Gaza. This was at a time when the Palestine Authority governed the area though Israeli army checkpoints controlled who came and went.
There was a lot of construction underway. Money was coming back in as exiles returned, more confident that they could raise their families there.
I was training journalists then too, including some from other Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt.
There were foreign workers and diplomats in Gaza and you could get a drink.
On that trip I realised that the basic ingredients of conflict in Northern Ireland and in Israel and Palestine were the same but in different proportions. Palestinians would express their support for the Provisional IRA and be a little perplexed that I didn’t.
Yet there seemed a kind of ease between the Palestinian journalists and the Israeli authorities. Uri Dromi, who was then the PR guy for Yitzhak Rabin came to Gaza to talk to the journalists and they had a much more amicable exchange than I expected.
On the last day of the later Nazareth trip I spoke to one of the Jewish Israeli journalists. I asked him what he thought would make him happy: peace with the Palestinians or the Palestinians simply disappearing. He said that the best thing that could happen would be if the Palestinians simply disappeared. This was a thought experiment. He wasn’t actually contemplating Israel eradicating them.
And I said that was a big difference with Northern Ireland because I didn’t think any Catholic or Protestant simply wished that the other community did not exist.
Now I am thinking of other differences between the two long conflicts.
There were many occasions when the British might have killed off the leaders of the IRA. They certainly killed a lot of top operators but when they discovered a plan to kill Gerry Adams they intervened to save him.
Their logic was perhaps that if they left the leadership in place that leadership might one day make a deal with them. And with long experience of leadership the same leadership might be able to deliver the whole movement into that deal.
This was a different approach to that taken by Israel, as demonstrated by the murder of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi and the other passengers in his car.
During the Northern Ireland Troubles, unionist leaders often urged the government to ‘take the gloves off’ and to wipe out the IRA.
In July 1972 the British army contemplated just such a prospect.
This followed an appalling atrocity in which the IRA had murdered nine civilians in bombings in Belfast. That was Bloody Friday. The shock and outrage that followed might have warranted a major assault against the IRA.
The government ordered the invasion of the barricaded No Go areas controlled by paramilitaries. The army planned to crash through barricades in Belfast and Derry and to confront the bombers and gunmen.
But the IRA was not an army in uniform that fought that way.
The British army had foreseen a huge battle but the IRA simply didn’t need to turn up for it. The army envisaged a lot of people getting killed. To prevent that, the secretary of state, William Whitelaw, broadcast an announcement that the army was going into those areas, giving people time to prepare.
I lived in one of those estates, Riverdale. I woke up to see an armed soldier on our doorstep. I didn’t know until years later when researching a book that the army had been granted permission, for that one operation only, to use mortars against the IRA.
The British strategy of undermining the paramilitaries by infiltrating them but leaving leadership intact ultimately worked.
Of course there are still some people who wish it hadn’t and that the Israeli approach had been applied here.
And some who think Israel would be at peace now if it had not always struck back.