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Ireland and Gaza: comparing like with like?

Tom Griffin
8 January 2009

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Writing in the Irish Examiner, David Trimble's former advisor Stephen King compares the Irish Troubles with the current events in Gaza.

The difference between the situation today in Gaza/Israel and in the 1990s in relation to the IRA should be blindingly obvious. The republican movement was looking for a way out of its self-destructive and counterproductive violence; Hamas believes it’s on a roll towards its ultimate aim of a Jew-free Palestine on the whole territory of Israel.

One of Jerusalem’s key objectives in Gaza — supported quietly by Arab governments — is to inject some realism into Hamas, just as the British and Irish security forces did to the IRA. We should recall it was not a short process: it took years, decades in fact. And even then, the IRA had to observe a unilateral ceasefire before they could join talks: the RUC, gardaí, British army and the Irish defence forces were scarcely confined to barracks.

The irony here is that any objective comparison of the two conflicts highlights the exact opposite of what King is implying.

According to the authoritative Lost Lives, the British and Irish security forces killed 365 people in the course of the Troubles, 9.9 per cent of the total. The IRA and other republican groups killed 2158 people, 58. 3 per cent of the total. Loyalists were responsible for the other 29.7 per cent, killing 1099 people.

There will probably never be such detailed figures for the current conflict in Gaza, but the latest reports suggest that 715 Palestinians have been killed in Operation Cast Lead, many of them civilians. 11 Israelis have been killed, of whom three were civilians.

Prior to the latest fighting, the Guardian reports that 20 Israelis had been killed by Gazan rockets in the past eight years, while 22 Gazans were killed by Israel during last year's ceasefire alone.

Far from being comparable with the British and Irish security forces, the level of killings by the Israeli Defence Forces has been even more disproportionate than that of the IRA.

King's contention that such violence is necessary to 'inject some realism' into Hamas is also questionable. The real Irish precedent, reflected in events like Bloody Sunday, is that such indiscriminate violence is utterly counterproductive.

Indeed, if anything weakened the IRA, it was the political setbacks suffered by republicans as a result of their own actions in events like the Enniskillen bombing. There is a lesson there for Hamas, but also for Israel which has experienced its own pattern of self-inflicted political setbacks, from the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, to the Qana massacres in 1996 and 2006. This week's events at the UN schools in Gaza must now be added to that list of 'self-destructive and counter-productive violence.'

The Irish experience also raises doubts about the suggestion that Israel has no partner for peace. The IRA was held to be similarly beyond the pale for much of the troubles, yet we now know there were repeated contacts throughout the period. Most recently, state papers released earlier this month revealed peace feelers from 1978.

Hamas is a very different organisation, and easy parallels between such different situations are always questionable. Nevertheless, some of those involved in back-channel contacts with the IRA believe there is a similar potential in the Middle East. If there is a real lesson to be learned from the Irish situation, that may be it.

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