IN my first year at Queen’s in Belfast, no subject exercised the monthly meetings of the students’ union more than the name of the hall where our meetings were held.
By and large, republican students supported retaining the name, Mandela Hall; unionist students resented what they saw as a political stunt, especially after it was revealed the Mandela in question was the discredited Winnie, not the saintly Nelson.
Needless to say, accusations of being in favour of necklace killings and of supporting white supremacy flew back and forth. At least, it was a diversion from what really divided the student body, the tit-for-tat violence on the streets outside, I guess.
Of course, for most right-minded people, support for the struggle to end apartheid was a no-brainer. To show your solidarity with the oppressed black majority who were denied the right to vote was important. The only question was how to go about it.
Beyond the ivory tower, that meant no South African wine would ever be served in respectable middle class homes. For others, it meant going on marches. But few went very much further. Life in a guerrilla camp in Mozambique didn’t appeal. Besides, the ANC had no time for such adventurers. There was no Irish Brigade camped across the Limpopo.
Beyond the wilder fringes, there used to be a consensus of aims about Israel/Palestine. Just as the desired goal in South Africa was a prosperous multiracial society, in the Holy Land it was of two secure states living side by side in harmony. But for those who have fallen into the trap of equating white South Africa with the state of Israel, the conflict in the Middle East offers many more – and more comfortable – opportunities to protest than years in the bush in the frontline states.
The struggle for Palestinian rights has long since moved beyond the university campuses where the keffiyah became the fashion statement of choice for bourgeois radicals. For a generation to whom Vietnam and South Africa are either faint memories or battles only read about in history books, Palestine is the most perfect cause. Unlike in the Spanish civil war, it’s not even as though Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, could be said to have a dog in the race. There are no mutilated nuns to confuse sentiment.
For rebels looking for a cause then, Israel makes a classic enemy. Being a Jewish state makes it racist, right? Aren’t its most vociferous supporters in the United States? Don’t its leaders often seem impervious to criticism? What more is there to know? Sure, they even have the bomb, for heaven’s sake. Only the Holocaust prevents even respectable opinion in Ireland from labelling Israel a fascist state. And as causes go, it helps that Gaza seems so much more immediate and urgent than the effects of global warming, so much more winnable than the Tibetan fight for autonomy.
Even politicians can join in the act – at almost no cost to themselves. They can visit a refugee camp and feel the Palestinians’ pain by day and still have time to retreat to a beach-side five-star hotel to sip cocktails before a slap-up dinner.
For the hardcore, that’s cheating. So some of these motivated individuals – a ragtag column of faded hippies, D-list celebrities, a long-forgotten Belfast peace campaigner and a few others whom Lenin would have dubbed ‘useful idiots’ – joined 400 Turkish Islamists on a voyage to break the Israeli blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. They came, they said, bearing medicine and food and toys. What more harmless humanitarian mission could there be?
And, in fairness, for many of them, that’s probably what it was: a genuine, if misguided, attempt to relieve Gaza’s suffering, whoever is to blame for it. After all, no one would pretend the Strip is anything other than a fly-ridden pit of a place. Who could fail to be moved by the conditions there?
But for the Turkish activists who drove the mission, the flotilla was all part of a much bigger game. It was a subtle repudiation of Ankara’s secular Ataturkist inheritance, a premeditated provocation by a gang of wannabe martyrs bent on violent confrontation and on realigning Turkey away from the west. The pity is that they succeeded in their aims.
I ask you, do genuine peace activists chant ‘death to the Jews’? And why does the western media turn a blind eye to such scenes which are positively celebrated on Arab TV?
Those who went to fight for the Republic in Spain were driven by a thirst for freedom, by positive visions of the future, by a willingness to take serious personal risks. But not a single one of those admirable traits was present on the ship of fools sailing to Gaza.
Ah, but if only the Israelis and Palestinians could sort out their differences, all in the region would be well, we’re led to believe. It’s a tempting trap to fall into. “Both sides are as bad as each other” appeals to fair-minded people. It doesn’t involve taking sides and no one will accuse you of being anti-semitic – or a lackey of imperialism either. But the impression that Israel/Palestine is the root of all the Middle East’s problems is as misguided as it is pervasive. Imagine, for a second, a world without Israel. Would the problems of the Middle East be healed? Far from it. The conflict with Israel merely serves as an effective cover for the region’s collective failure to build stable, just and prosperous societies.
The Arab world would do well to rage a bit less against Israel and think a bit more about how to be better governed, better educated, more prosperous – and how to more effectively utilise the talents of the half of its population who happen to be female.
CLOSER to home, beyond trying to save its citizens, even the reckless ones, from harm it’s never quite clear where the Government thinks its own interests lie. I would suggest they lie not in pandering to sentiment – it’s not as though Palestinian suffering is unique in a region that’s going backwards according to most indices – but in preventing a nuclear arms race between Iran on the one hand and the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, on the other. Then we would really be talking “serious consequences”, for Ireland and the whole world.
The deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara were regrettable and most probably avoidable. They deserve full investigation. But to avoid the mistakes of the past, politicians need to go beyond kneejerk reactions to examine the effects of their statements on the Middle East peace process, the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Iranian efforts to establish hegemony in the region.
As for the boats which have been sailing to Gaza, they are neither truly humanitarian missions nor simply vehicles for delivering weapons to Hamas. They are best understood as an armada of people with the kind of bad politics which have been rejected at the polls in Ireland time and again.
True, the fact that the flotilla to Gaza was powered by an underlying desire for punishment of the chattering classes’ new pariah does not justify Israel’s recklessness. But it does help to explain it.