The Continuing Persecution Of The Palestinian People – An Irish View

Abstract: Drawing parallels between the Israeli occupation of Palestine with the British occupation of Ireland and in particular the role of religion in both conflicts, the author argues that only by holding Israel to account for its crimes can a just and lasting peace be established.

To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. – Nelson Mandela

In any traditional society, the dominant religion and the deeply held religious beliefs of the people are of the utmost importance and for some the most important thing in their lives. I see this every time I visit people in their homes and bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and housebound. I see it in religious customs like visiting Holy Wells and going to places of pilgrimage like Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick and Lourdes. It is not just older people who believe like this; younger people also have strong beliefs and reverence for the sacred. Some of the modern secular people cannot understand this phenomenon. They even make fun of it. They call these people old-fashioned and superstitious etc. which shows a great lack of tolerance and lack of respect.

When people have also suffered years of economic deprivation and military repression their religious faith is even more important in their lives. When their situation appears hopeless they often turn their thoughts to God and to an afterlife. Many engaged in resistance to oppression find strength and comfort in their deeply held religious beliefs. It is wrong and arrogant to dismiss people’s religious beliefs.

Many writers and cartoonists in the West – in Europe, in particular – have difficulty in understanding and respecting the traditional beliefs of Muslims. Many have difficulty accepting the religious practice of Muslims and their attachment to their Holy places. In the context of the Palestinian struggle the Mosque in Jerusalem takes on an added significance for the people of faith.

People who belong to the Catholic Church in the north of Ireland are familiar with hostility from the British and their allies among some Protestant parties. This is the legacy of our colonial history. Some Protestants in the north of Ireland who follow Ian Paisley and his sect, the Free Presbyterians, often make fun of Catholics and their beliefs. They scoff at priests and the religious practices of the people – like the Holy Mass.

I remember some years ago when Ian Paisley mocked the Mass which is very dear to Irish Catholics. There was a time which is still strong in the Irish psyche and memory when the celebration of the Mass was banned by the British government during what is called the Penal Times. When Paisley mockingly held up a Communion host during a debate in Cambridge, Irish Catholics were outraged. Apart from bad manners he showed a shocking ignorance and insensitivity to people who live in the same country and in the same community. No Catholic I know would ever mock or pour scorn on Protestants and their beliefs. You may remember when Paisley went to the European parliament and harangued the late Pope John Paul II, who remained dignified throughout Paisley¹s outburst.

This was incitement to hatred and it was provocative. Paisley and his fans think it is funny to mock the Catholic religion. It is not a bit funny. It keeps the bitterness towards Catholics going. It foments sectarian racism. It results in Catholics being targeted and killed by hate-filled people who think they are doing a good deed. There are slogans written on walls in Belfast and elsewhere making rude remarks about the Pope. Paisley must share in the responsibility for the continuing bigotry and racism.

When the British soldiers and the police used to break into Catholic homes, they would often make fun of religious emblems or Holy pictures. When my car was being searched by the UDR (local Protestant militia linked to the British army) they would often insult me and the religious objects I carried in the glove compartment of the car. On one occasion they came to the church when I was leading the celebration of the Mass.

Since the Good Friday Agreement (1998) – which Paisley does not accept – efforts are being made to move away from the old shibboleths and to build a new society in Ireland. Irish republicans are working towards creating an inclusive society in Ireland where Protestants and Catholics and people of other faiths and none can live together in peace and harmony. That is the very essence of Republicanism – to create a tolerant society. It will be a society which will embrace Unionists who because of their history do not feel a part of Ireland but are more attached – emotionally to England and the Queen.

We need laws against racism and sectarianism but we need to have them enforced. So we need a proper policing service and a fair judicial system – which we never have had in the six counties of north-east Ireland under British rule.

Often our conflict in Ireland has been misrepresented as a religious conflict. It is presented as an age – old conflict between Catholics and Protestants which goes back to the Reformation. This is a complete misrepresentation because it ignores the role of the British government in fomenting and maintaining division for their own selfish colonial purposes.

Irish nationalists and republicans have moved on and are engaged in all kinds of progressive endeavours to create wealth and prosperity for the whole community in Ireland. There have been all kinds of community endeavours like Credit Union and Self -help projects aimed at promoting the social and economic well being of the whole community – especially those who have been marginalised for many years.

Muslims too have their own traditions and customs which some outsiders¹ may find difficult to understand — e.g. not shaking hands with women, taking off shoes which represent dirt etc. Muslims in Palestine- in their won land – have suffered at the hands of the occupying Israeli soldiers. For many Palestinians, their religious faith is of vital importance. It sustains them throughout their suffering and oppression. The symbols of their faith are hugely important to them – as they have been to people involved in liberation struggles throughout history all over the world. In recent years the growth of liberation theology shows just how many people take a new approach to their faith and their Scriptures.

Since the election in January there is a great deal of interest in the situation in Palestine and how it will evolve.

I happened to be in New York in January this year when the results of the election in Palestine were announced. To the shock and dismay of the Washington political establishment and some reporters, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, secured 76 of the 132 seats. However, the result was predictable. Given the continuing violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government and their Zionist supporters surely the long-suffering Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem were going to vote for those who will articulate their concerns and their just demands. The vast majority of the 3.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem want an end to Israeli rule. They want a new political dispensation -just as Sinn Fein and the IRA want a new political dispensation in Ireland.

George Bush was being interviewed on television about the election results. I normally would not watch TV during the day – especially if George Bush was on it – but on this occasion I wanted to see his response to the Hamas success at the polls. This man was even more shifty than usual. He said the people had spoken at the ballot box and voted fore Hamas – but we will not be doing business with them. It reminded me of the time when Thatcher and the British government said they would not talk to Bobby Sands after he won the Fermanagh-South Tyrone Election in 1981 while on hunger-strike.

To me, an outside observer living in the northeast of Ireland, the rise of Hamas and their success in the last election was as predictable as the rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland and the rise of the ANC in South Africa. The ongoing repression of the Palestinian people and the daily violation of their basic human rights has caused people to look for political leaders who will represent them and speak up for them and work with them to improve their lot. There is only so much the people will take and then they will organise to defend themselves and their families and they will be determined to stop the enemy from inflicting further pain on their people and their families. They will organise politically to maximise their vote and speak on behalf of their people in the world forum. This is democracy. It may not be the kind of democracy that the US government or the British government likes as they would rather be in control.

But like it or not, it is the kind they are going to get and they will have to deal with it and they will have to listen to the voice of the people crying out for justice and an end to the Israeli aggression. They will have to heed the demand for the restoration of the state of Palestine and the observation of all the UN rulings. Above all they will have to heed the call of Muslim believers that their Mosque Al Asqa is a sacred place for them – the third most sacred place in the world after Mecca and Medina.

Because of my own experience of British military aggression and control in the northeast of Ireland and the attempts to denigrate the faith of the ordinary Catholic people -mocking religious symbols like Holy pictures, holy water fonts etc. – I can identify with the concerns of the Palestinians and the Muslim religious leaders. I understand the deep feelings of the Palestinian Muslim people about any attempt to desecrate the Masjid Al Aqsa.

I can well understand the anger and frustration of the Palestinian people who are subjected to harassment and intimidation every day of the year. I lived near the artificially created border in Ireland and we too had British military roadblocks and checkpoints, long delays, abuse – physical and mental. Very often the purpose of intimidation and harasssment is to provoke a reaction which gives them justification for further repression.

We too had the torture of prisoners. We too had job discrimination and apartheid. I often wonder how much the Israelis learned from the Brits about how to persecute and tyrannise the people they consider to be their enemies¹.

Just as we were isolated and had no access to the international media, so too the Palestinians have been isolated and their plight has been misreported. The Israelis, supported by the US Zionist movement and the White House, have set the media agenda. Political analyst, John Pilger comments:

“For thirty-five years at least, Palestinians have been denied a right of return to their homes, in breach of numerous UN resolutions and international law. In demanding Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, the Security Council used words strikingly similar to those that demanded Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait in 1990. When Iraq did not comply, it was attacked by an American-led coalition and Kuwait was liberated. When Israel has not complied, it has received increased Western, principally American, economic and military support.”

With honourable exceptions, events in Palestine are reported in the West in terms of two warring rivals, not as the oppression of an illegal occupier and the resistance of the occupied. The Israeli regime continues to set the international news agenda. Israelis are murdered by terrorists, while Palestinians are left dead after a clash with the security forces. Distinction is rarely made between a huge nuclear-armed military force with tanks, fighter jets and helicopter gun-ships and crowds of youths with slingshots. (The suicide bombers are a relatively recent phenomenon, the product mostly of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which left 17,500 dead.)

This year, 2006, Irish republicans are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rebellion and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

“Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen army, having patiently perfected her disciple, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory…”

The British government suppressed the Rebellion in 1916 and executed the leaders. They then went on to frustrate the Irish people’s right to independence and freedom. When they could not overcome the determined resistance of Irish republicans (the IRA) they contrived to partition the country granting limited independence to 26 counties and keeping control of 6 north-eastern counties around Belfast and Derry. This was totally against the wishes of the Irish people as a whole and has led to the decades of conflict ever since.

Since the IRA Ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 much of the repressive apparatus has been dismantled. There are still military look-out posts along the border.

THE HUMILIATION AND IMPOVERISHMENT OF THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE

In 1967 the people of Palestine were dispossessed of their homeland and forced to live in refugee camps. The Israeli government occupied the whole of Palestine and took over Jerusalem. The Palestinian people’s anger and frustration erupted with the intifada first in 1987 and then again in 2000 when the people attacked Israeli troops with their bare hands. They were sick and tiered of being humiliated and treated like animals. The Israeli army reacted fiercely killing at least four and injuring a large number.

After the Israeli attack on Palestinians in the year 2000, the intimidation and repression by the Israelis intensified. Reporting from Jerusalem on Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, BBC correspondent Fiona Symon, stated:

“Since the outbreak of the current intifada in October 2000, living standards among Palestinians have fallen dramatically. Israel’s stranglehold over the Palestinian economy is virtually complete and takes the form of over 150 military blockades erected in the West Bank and more than 40 in Gaza.

To these must now be added the new buffer zone, established this week along the border between Israel the Palestinian areas. All entry and exit points to the West Bank and Gaza – even mountainous paths and dirt roads – have been closed. Palestinians experience daily humiliation, and sometimes intimidation, at these checkpoints.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that monitors army activities in the occupied territories, says it is aware of several cases in which soldiers have shot and killed Palestinians “without provocation” at roadblocks during the uprising. The Israeli army denies this, but what is not in dispute is the impact the checkpoints have had on the economy. This has virtually ground to a halt, according to a report by the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction issued a year into the intifada.

It put the total loss in all economic sectors at $4.25bn dollars during the period between September 2000 and September 2001. Tourism, which previously accounted for 11% of the Palestinian gross domestic product and was an important source of hard currency, has come to a complete halt as a result of the closure. Farming, trade and industry have all been severely hit – PECDAR estimates that around 150,000 fruit trees alone have been uprooted.

More than 4,000 homes have been destroyed, in addition to a large number of public buildings and projects, says PECDAR, which puts the cost of infrastructure losses at $165m and transport losses at $5m during the period.

The closure of Gaza International airport has had a disastrous effects on tourism and investment. The Palestinian Authority has spent millions of dollars on attracting investment and upgrading tourism, but the airport closure has resulted in large numbers of investors taking their money elsewhere.

The siege has been particularly damaging because of the extent to which the Palestinian economy is dependent on Israel, says PECDAR, noting that 85% of trade is done through Israel, and Palestinians buy their electricity, water and telecommunications from Israeli companies. Before the intifada the number of Palestinian workers was 651,000, of whom 133,000 worked inside Israel. As a direct result of the closure, unemployment has risen from 12% to 51% of the Palestinian workforce. “A natural consequence of unemployment is poverty. As a result of the Israeli closure, thousands of Palestinians lost their jobs and consequently their main source of income,” says PECDAR

Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki said Israel’s closure policy “has planted the seeds of hatred for a long time to come”. The blockades have not provided security for Israel, but have radicalised moderate Palestinians whose businesses have been paralysed, he says. This view is reflected in the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre.

It surveyed Palestinians last week and found that attitudes towards the peace process have hardened. Support for the peace process fell from 38% last June(2001) to 29% this month and the percentage of Palestinians who regard the peace process as dead has risen to 42% from 27%.

Ghassan Khatib, director of the centre, says Palestinians are in no mood to compromise because they believe the one achievement of the intifada so far has been to prevent Israel from imposing its blueprint for a final settlement. “Palestinians believe that Israel initiated the violence, and that they are simply reacting and resisting Israeli aggression,” said Mr Khatib.”

Throughout the period since then there have been many more Palestinian casualties directly resulting from the Israeli occupation and the intimidation and harassment which has intensified . From September 2000 till December 2004 more than 3,565 Palestinians were killed by Israel, more than 500 of them children, more than 80% civilians. In the same period almost 1000 Israelis have been killed. In the year 2004 alone, Israeli soldiers killed 176 Palestinian children. In Gaza 1400 Palestinians have been killed between September 2000 and December 2004. In this period in Gaza at least 19,000 people have been made homeless through house demolitions. Since the Ceasefire was declared on February 8, 2005 in Sharm el-Sheikh till the end of last year 100 Palestinians (65 non-combatants) and 22 Israelis (20 non-combatants) have been killed

In spite of international sanctions the Israeli government continues to operate what is an apartheid system under which Palestinians are discriminated against in service provision, housing, jobs, education etc. No wonder Archbishop Tutu said after a visit there that apartheid in South Africa was a picnic compared to that practised by Israel.

For devout Muslims the attack and threats to their Mosque at Al Asqa – the dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are a cause of great sorrow and hurt.

Within the West Bank there are 13 areas or bantustans, completely disconnected. To get from one to another requires Israeli permission. Even within those areas travel is difficult. There are 750 barriers or roadblocks in the West Bank. Israel has dug up many roads to prevent Palestinians from moving from one area to the next and they have also put up road blocks and barriers designed to do the same. There are also more than 40 checkpoints which generally don¹t lead from the Palestinian areas into Israel but from one Palestinian area to another.

At the checkpoints the Israeli soldiers act in a very arbitrary manner. There are no rules. It does not matter whether a person has the required permit. Permission to travel through the checkpoint depends on the whim of the particular soldier there. (I remember the same at the Boa island checkpoint in Fermanagh!). Palestinians usually have to wait hours, sometimes days, at checkpoints and even then they are turned back, even if they have Israeli permits. People with foreign or Israeli passports can pass through unimpeded.

Justice for the Palestinian people means first of all acceptance of the International Agreements and the UN resolution 242 – the complete withdrawal of the Israelis from East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.. It means the acceptance of the right to national self determination and the return of their homeland to the Palestinian people. And it means respect for the sacredness of the Palestinian people, their traditions and beliefs. The cartoons depicting Muhammed were wrong, insulting and a gross violation of the human rights of the Muslim people. They were also racist. The argument about freedom of speech is nonsense. Freedom of Expression does not give anyone the right to insult other people’s religious beliefs.

Like some other writers from the Christian Liberation tradition, I would stress the need for a prophetic imagination if we are to move the situation forward so that the oppressed people experience empowerment. That prophetic imagination will bring forth a new language:

‘Most of all the prophets understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness ‘fresh from the word.’ It is argued here that a prophetic understanding of reality is based on the notion that all social reality does spring fresh from the word. It is the aim of every totalitarian effort to stop the language of newness, and we are now learning that where such language stops we find our humanness diminished.’

What we are concerned about now is promoting an alternative consciousness – not just social action. The Christian tradition at its best holds two key elements together – criticising and energising. Liberation theology revived these two key elements as critical in the debate with society.

‘No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the moment, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it. Empires prefer systematic theologians who see it all, who understand both sides and who regard polemics as unworthy of God and divisive of the public good.’

The great enemy of liberation and human rights is imperialism. Indeed the great enemy of the human race since the beginning has been imperialism and its side-kick, colonialism -for they have been about enslavement and taking people’s power. Like the prophets of old we need new prophetic voices to confront and condemn imperialism and fundamentalism – especially the Christian based imperialism and the Christian Zionism of the USA and its ally in Britain. The alternative consciousness is characterised by critiquing and energising. The Exodus event and story is about the radical criticism and the radical dismantling of the Egyptian empire. The tragedy is that the Exodus led to the displacement of the indigenous peoples of Palestine and this has been used to justify Zionist policies.

The situation in Palestine where the human rights of Palestinian people are violated every day cries out for international action.

In relation to the present conflict in Palestine there is a strong right wing Christian fundamentalist lobby in the US which opposes the Palestinian people ever recovering their land. These argue that according to the Bible the Jews are God’s chosen people and Israel is the Promised Land. This false ideology must be refuted.

I doubt if there is any such thing as a religious war, no matter how much religious rhetoric is used by one side or the other. Of course, there are religious overtones in every war and god is invoked by all sides to help their cause…. and in any war that is as protracted as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians the faith of those involved will take on a new and urgent meaning. But ultimately war is about human rights – and is usually the result of a clash of rights – the right to self-determination, the right to freedom of movement etc…

The author of The Prophetic Imagination states:

‘In an empire no god is for anyone. They are old gods who don’t care anymore and have tried everything once and have a committee studying all the other issues. For Moses and the prophets energising comes not out of sociological strategy or hunches about social dynamic but out of the freedom of God…

The language of the empire is surely the language of managed reality, of production and schedule and market, but that language will never permit or cause freedom because there is no newness in it. Doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality and it alone is the universe of discourse in which energy is possible.’

Successive Israeli governments have acted illegally and broken all international laws and UN resolutions. Because of the way Israeli governments have treated their Arab neighbours – especially the Palestinian people – they must be held to account by the international community. They have acted like schoolyard bullies. The bully has nothing to offer. A growing number of Israeli people and conscientious Jews know that.

As the search for just and lasting peace continues it is important that the people unite to find a peaceful way forward. They need leaders they can trust and support. It is also important that impatient young people do not play into the hands of the Israeli propaganda machine. The way forward is always through dialogue. Will the Israelis engage in meaningful political dialogue with the Hamas?

I will end this essay with a quote from a great Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in 1906 then years before the Easter Rising of 1916:

“A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man is of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher and to no preacher, until the demand of the Nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.”

i. John Pilger, THE NEW RULERS OF THE WORLD (Verso, London 2002) P138-139 
ii. Walter Brueggemann, THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION (Fortress Phila, 1978) p9ff 
iii. Walter Brueggemann, THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION (Fortress Phila,1978) 
iv. Walter Brueggemann, THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION (Fortress Phila,1978) p25-26 

Fr. Joe McVeigh

Fr. Joe McVeigh is a Catholic priest from Fermanagh one of the six counties in Ireland still occupied by the British. He is the author of a number of books including A Wounded Church: Religion, Politics and Justice in Ireland (1989). Ordained in 1971, Fr. McVeigh has been active in his opposition to British involvement in Ireland and Irish affairs, and has suffered both persecution by British security forces and disapproval from the hierarchy of the Irish church. He has studied Conflict Resolution and works with the Belfast Human Rights Centre. He is editor of ‘Irish Witness’.