UK politicians’ ambivalence over a ceasefire shows how little they learned from the Troubles
Growing up during the Troubles in the North of Ireland, and subsequently as a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan and Angola, I learned a couple of things about war.
I learned what it feels like to be powerless and scared under the guns of hostile troops. I learned that whatever stories combatants spin to justify their actions, most of the suffering they cause is unjustifiable. And I learned that even though violence is unpredictable, it can predictably become self-perpetuating until cooler heads prevail. Those cooler heads are very rarely the fighters themselves.
Warring parties almost always need a hand to help them out of the abyss. This is all the more true where conflicts have become endemic, and where cultures of violence and dehumanisation have taken root.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, particularly Israel's illegal and morally corrosive occupation of the Palestinian territories, has long demonstrated this. The vile rhetoric of the Hamas leadership after its crimes on 7 October, which saw 1,200 people murdered, was replete with the hateful language of eliminating Israel. Not to be outdone, the Israeli defence minister described Palestinians as "human animals" before launching a full out attack on Gaza. Israel's military action has so far claimed 11,000 lives, including 4,500 children and 3,000 women, according to the UN and the Ministry of Health in Gaza.
Given the violence that has been meted out over the years, the extremists' desire for more violence (on both sides) is perhaps understandable. As Seamus Heaney described, brutalised societies are filled with people ready
"To repeat themselves and their every last mistake
No matter what
People so deep into
Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up."
But that doesn't mean this desire for violence must be accepted, let alone allowed to guide policy unchallenged.
Yet where is the challenge? Where are the cooler heads? External help from the United States and Europe was essential to ending the violence in the North of Ireland. Outside pressure and mediation were also vital to ending Apartheid in South Africa. But in this fight, the voices that were so productive in breaking other cycles of violence are either absent, abstaining, or worse: taking sides (in word and support, if not in deed) and joining the fray.
We need mediators, not cheerleaders
It is rarely helpful, when trying to stop a war, to take sides with one of the combatants. Doing so vindicates their actions and approaches, encouraging them to repeat "their every last mistake". What is really needed is enough neutrality, objectivity, pressure for change, and dialogue to chart a fresh course.
This is sorely missing right now. In relation to this latest assault on Gaza, we have more cheerleading by international actors than credible diplomacy for peace.
Joe Biden allowed himself to be photographed embracing not Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, but the disgraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, throwing him a political lifeline as a result. In the UK, the British establishment has repeatedly communicated that they have a double standard when it comes to Palestinian and Israeli crimes. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak directly told Netanyahu "we want you to win", and leaders of the British Labour Party appeared to endorse Israel's breach of international humanitarian law when it cut off water and electricity to the civilian population of Gaza, and attacked refugee camps.
Western leaders weep crocodile tears for the thousands of Palestinian children already dead from the onslaught yet refuse to call for a ceasefire. Despite few of them having any experience of armed conflict, they are convinced of their own understanding of war. And they insist that Israel must do what is necessary to bring about the military defeat of Hamas, even if it requires the slaughter of thousands more children in the process.
The massacre to recruitment pipeline
In doing this they have proven themselves Netanyahu's useful idiots. But this should be unsurprising. As Oscar Wilde observed, "... the English can't remember history".
To take just one example, the slaughter of civilians by the British Army in Ballymurphy and Derry in 1971 and 1972 provided floods of recruits into the ranks of the IRA. This in turn guaranteed a protracted and bloody conflict, typified by war crimes on all sides, before the political settlement that was obviously necessary in the 1970s was finally achieved in 1998.
Given the scale of the slaughter in Gaza, my expectation as an Irish person old enough to remember Ballymurphy is that the Palestinian reaction to it will be orders of magnitude larger than that of Irish nationalists to Bloody Sunday. So, even if Netanyahu manages to kill the majority of the Hamas leadership left in Gaza, Israel has sown the ground with a new generation that will seek brutal revenge in years to come.
In other words, the security of Israeli civilians will ultimately be undermined by the consequences of this assault on Gaza. The necessary political settlement that ends the illegal occupation and recognises the just aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike will still be years away. And obtaining it, and the peace and security it would bring, will be delayed by so much of the West acquiescing in the Netanyahu government's desire for revenge, rather than providing meaningful advocacy for peace.
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