Discussions surrounding Israel/Palestine often rage in Northern Ireland with a passionate fury. In some ways, much like many other places all over the world, the conflict in the Middle East is often a hot topic of conversation.
Pretty much all political groupings across the right-left spectrum hold a position on the conflict, regularly homing in on a specific topic or issue.
Unfortunately discourse surrounding the conflict has taken on more serious connotations, dragging up emotive local issues frequently causing parallels to be drawn between Israel/Palestine and the Nationalist vs. Unionist reality in Northern Irish society.
In today’s Northern Ireland we are witness to a period where society attempts to press forward a future of diverse communities that unite against the emotive and divisive issues of the divided past such as the plague of sectarianism. An inspirational a model of conflict resolution, Northern Ireland has become a fascinating case study. Indeed young people are now growing up with a certain openness and understanding that engenders equality rather than division, it is no wonder those who immerse themselves in the study of the deeply divided look to Northern Ireland as an example to celebrate. Diversity between communities really is starting to exist here replacing the usual mistrust and intolerance typically found in places where such serious division exists.
It is fair to say that here in Northern Ireland people have come a long way in terms of speaking out against discrimination, sectarianism and violence. There is however still a lot of issues to overcome, especially in local political discourse where many complex issues come to light, often awakening feelings of hatred between those who hold different views/perspectives or even personal experiences. This factor risks dehumanizing ‘the other’ thus focus is lost and many forget the fact that every individual has a unique background or community and that they each have individual and collective rights that come with big responsibilities.
One of the most troubling points of concern here is when almost every possible topic that has two sides to it becomes polarized between the two most prominent communities. This polarization gives rise to stereotypes that are dragging us backwards rather than forwards.
Indeed while attending events held throughout the past year on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divide in Northern Ireland, I have witnessed specific associations being drawn and made for example the connection between an advocacy group named Northern Ireland Friends of Israel and the Unionist community throughout Northern Ireland.
In stark contrast while attending events administered by the Friends of Palestine Béal Feirste (Belfast) I found they take a position of their own ‘struggle’ being synonymous or equal to that of the Palestinian people.
I have spoken to individuals who say things such as “I see the Palestinian struggle much like the Irish struggle over here” and my personal favorite “I support Palestine because I am Catholic and that’s what I am supposed to do”. The flip side to this is where I have witnessed individuals from the Unionist community stating “Israel and Northern Ireland are the same thing we are constantly under terrorist attack and our existence threatened”.
When I recently asked a man why he was putting an Israeli flag up in the Loyalist Shankhill road area he stated it was “Because they [Republicans] have Palestinian flags up in their areas”.
All of this is before I even mention the various murals available throughout Belfast city for Palestine and occasionally Israel.
When will people stop using national identity and flags to insult and hurt those around them in their own community and in others? Whether it is the British flag alongside the Israeli Flag or Palestinian flag attached to a Tricolour it’s just wrong to use symbolism in such an abhorrent way.
These ideologies are unfortunately being reflected in almost every walk of life where Israel/Palestine comes up. This includes politically where in Stormont Republicans parties such as Sinn Fein frequently cite the “Ireland/Palestine – one struggle” ideology whilst Unionists and have even gone as far as to claim that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel.
The discussion has become so polarized that even on campus at Queen’s University Belfast members of staff invoked the stereotype that Pro-Palestinian protestors were ‘Probably Catholic’ in an official university investigating officers report, despite the fact that the three students brought before disciplinary were Greek Orthodox, Protestant and an International.
We have an opportunity in Northern Ireland to advance the discussion on important topics involving human rights such as that of Israel/Palestine by using the progress made here to come out and say that Human Rights is and should always be a subject that unites people rather than dividing them. The Palestinian people’s struggle is first and foremost a unique and individual one that has a focus on human rights for all; secondly it is not comparable to any other situation especially of that in Northern Ireland. For me It’s quite simple; Israel is not Northern Ireland and Palestine is not an oppress and occupied Ireland.
We have so many activist groups set up in Belfast that try to involve local political issues lumped in with the Palestinian cause. This has almost destroyed the Palestine solidarity movement completely, rendering our voices for Palestine to be incoherent. It puts so many people who may be moderate politically off from being involved in even just a discussion when we see Tricolours flying with Eirigi flags and a Palestinian flag at the end of the Anderson town Barracks site, in the same way that people are troubled when they see Israeli flags flying on the corner of Sandy Row.
To successfully discuss the Israel/Palestine issue here in Northern Ireland we need to realize that the enmity and hatred that comes with opposing ideologies is causing major problems. This is true especially for young people and students on campus where it’s becoming almost impossible to put forward sensible and important issues for student discussion out of fear it may hold connotations. This is especially true when Israeli newspapers are painting Northern Irish Students as all being members of the IRA.
Members of both communities have come together at Queens University Belfast after the realization that for too long has the approach to the Palestine-Israel conflict amongst Northern Irish students been one of polarization. In the absence of a real dialogue on the Middle East, we have become entrenched in a counterproductive and, indeed, damaging war of words.
Northern Irish students have lost sight of the overall objective of supporting grassroots peace movements, and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not an issue where people can have a monopoly on it trying to make one issue specifically unionist and another specifically catholic. This debate must be brought to the mainstream everyday people so that it is no longer polarized beyond reconciliation.
We must try and find a way to make education on the debate as near to objective of human rights focus as possible so that people can take lessons away from the debate in order to see that the ‘other’ are the just the same as us all collectively.
People need to learn from both sides of the debate about the truth in any situation and to reject any biased exposure or propaganda they may have been subjected to so as to form a more full and fair conclusion. It is crucial to combine narratives from many different perspectives and come up with a moderate and usually more accurate viewpoint.
We cannot lose focus of legitimate criticism of Israeli policies that harm the basic human rights of Palestinian people. Israel as the occupier is the one in power here and as such must stick to its responsibilities as such under international law which it has failed time and time again to uphold. Palestine also must be put under legitimate criticism for its human rights records however this is not a balanced conflict. This is where the discussion lies in the realities on the ground and the facts not in polarizing politics here in Northern Ireland.
Most importantly we here in Belfast have to learn that opposing ideologies are here to be debated and not hated for if we remove hatred and aggression from the equation we can have rational and empowering debates that help us find solutions to real problems. This is one of the basic ideas found in nonviolence which is one of the main pathways to winning human rights in the world today.