Efforts at peace are doomed to failure if we continue to take the politics out of it.
This latest tragic episode in the Middle East conflict has an especially strange feeling. The media discourse, for one thing, has been so mixed. Some mainstream channels, we are told, have not provided adequately balanced reportage of the conflict. They have given Israeli lives greater value than those of Palestinians. They have over-reported the extent of Hamas actions while diminishing the crushing extent of Israeli Defence Forces’ bombing campaign and ground assaults. Then there are the pieces that focus on the human element. Jon Snow made a particularly impassioned appeal on behalf of the children of Gaza, who are victims, both of the present attacks and of the spiral of violence and hatred into which some will inevitably be swept. Lucky are those of us who have never been presented with the choice of whether to pick up a gun, a rocket launcher or a petrol bomb!
We are well familiar with the hysterical coverage that assumes all Palestinians will ultimately choose the violent option, that the IDF is doing what is necessary and that Israel “has the right to defend itself” even if this includes bombing civilians and precipitating street warfare. There are thoughtful, philosophical pieces on the nature of terror and what constitutes it and a whole plethora of reflections to fill as many tabs as your browser can take. In some ways, the media have become a battleground in their own right, wherein people power can exert changes in coverage through social media.
The Israeli Embassy to Ireland got in trouble during the week for its bizarre use of Twitter to scaremonger about Islamist incursion in Europe, in a manner akin to far right groups such as Vlaams Belang and the British National Party. That’s right, an official organ of the State of Israel tweeted pictures of major landmarks wearing niqabs, hijabs and burkhas. Social media have also been the main tool through which protests and demonstrations have been organised, at least in the West. In Ireland, I have seen Facebook used to mobilise people around direct political pressure, giving the contact details of the Ministers for Justice and Foreign Affairs so that they might feel pressurised into acting within their portfolios to give greater voice to the humanitarian perspective on behalf of Ireland. The hope is that they can use their influence in such fora as the UN Human Rights Council in which the Irish government, along with other EU member states, abstained on a vote to establish whether war crimes had been committed in Gaza.
It is striking that there is an overall feeling of powerlessness, even among those in power. What can little old Ireland do on its own without the strength of the EU? How can we reach consensus when Germany is hamstrung and supports Israel unequivocally for fear of raising the spectre of their benighted past? How will France or the UK get on board when their arms industries sell to Israel? How can any of these countries move without the US? And how can the US change track without alienating the powerful pro-Israel lobby there? This whole sorry saga is a lesson in political organisation and strategy…
Last Thursday, I stood in the middle of the Schuman Roundabout in Brussels – surrounded by the grandeur of the European Commission, Council and External Action Service buildings – to protest the persistent vicious bombing campaign on Gaza. Approximately 50 people from several countries joined together for an event entitled “Peace for Palestine: Stop bombing Gaza”. The context was that the organisation Young Professionals in Foreign Policy was holding an event to discuss the situation in Gaza and their special guest was Israeli Ambassador David Walzer. Had they invited Palestinian representatives too, this might have seemed reasonable. However, to privilege the more obviously belligerent party in this manner showed such a blatantly unequal distribution of power in terms of narrative, message and influence as to warrant protest. “It is better to do something than nothing”, I told myself, no doubt similar to the perspective of the millions of protestors currently taking to the streets worldwide. Ultimately, however, the helplessness that crept over me as we stood on the roundabout shouting at a man who couldn’t hear us reinforced the feeling that we in fact represented this uneven distribution of power. We must do something but what we do is most important.
The Biblical tale of David and Goliath has some application to both sides. Israeli politics exemplifies a “laager culture” that sees itself as an underdog surrounded by hostile neighbours. Their self-perception is that, like King David as a young shepherd, they use skill, ingenuity, toughness and pluckiness to overcome their adversaries. The Palestinian narrative is more obviously coloured by themes of colonisation as Israel expands brazenly into Palestinian territory, granted impunity by an imperialist West that caused the problems in the first place. Conspiracy theories abound about why Israel is allowed to do this, many of which are underscored by sinister anti-Semitic undertones that evoke an international Jewry embedded in the institutions of global financial capitalism and politics.
It is perhaps this latter association that has led to the linkage between the cause of Free Palestine and the political Left. Crucially, however, this has been an amorphous Left that, for the purposes of this campaign, eschews the tenets of traditional political organisation. Being non-partisan is held as a positive and inclusive thing. All the while, hands are wrung and protests held in places where none of the pertinent decisions are made. This is not to negate the potential of street politics. The Civil Rights Movements in the US and in Northern Ireland gained much of their momentum from the streets. Yet key to their success was the dual approach wherein they got their hands dirty engaging with the turgid, boring affairs of traditional politics too.
Within Palestine itself, there have been many efforts to work in this manner. Through many frustrating years, Fatah tested both political and armed tactics to achieve Palestinian statehood. However, as they engaged more in negotiations, Israel also undermined their position to the point at which they appeared weak to many Palestinians. Their woes have been added to by their tendency to appear as Establishment darlings and by a slide towards corruption. This is an awful pity! I have met several Fatah leaders of the older generation, such as Nabil Shaath, and younger hopefuls like Hussam Zomlot. They have huge personal potential but have been met by intransigence at one side and organisational breakdown on the other.
The net result was the opening of space for the dangerous, reactionary forces of Hamas to come to power in Gaza. Israeli refusals to even talk to them in a constructive manner shores up Hamas’ position further. Their pathetic attempts at rocket fire when faced with Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defence system shows a political leadership with few solutions that wishes to keep its more extremist militants on board. Yet the current incursion into Gaza in fact strengthens Hamas’ political position for now and undermines any possibility of a negotiated solution. It is difficult not to conclude that this is the Israeli government’s desire.
And what of the Israeli perspective? Last March, I attended a meeting of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Jerusalem. Here, civil society leaders, academics and some politicians from both sides met to discuss potential new paradigms for resolving the conflict. Some Palestinians excused themselves for being late by explaining that they had been forced by border guards to take alternative entrances to West Jerusalem for no good reason. This was during peacetime but even when faced with such civil rights abuses, there was a sort of “apologist consensus” among certain Israelis, even those who were from the “peace camp” of the Labour Party and Meretz. “We must be able to defend ourselves!” they say, “We live in constant fear of rocket fire” they remind us, “We’re the only democracy in the Middle East”. Of course, they stop short of the outright disdain for Palestinians spouted by Netanyahu and Likud but the crucial point is that this “apologist consensus” is embedded within political parties. Other more cuddly lefties from Israeli civil society organisations disagreed with this perspective but they do not operate where the decisions are made. If we want to effect change, this must be done through the political system, with all its faults and compromises, whether we like it or not.
But this makes people uncomfortable. Partisan politics makes them feel dirty. Most would donate money to a UNICEF or Red Cross appeal for the children of Gaza. But would they donate money to a political movement so that they have the resources necessary to negotiate effectively? Is it better to provide medicine for a wounded child or prevent these wounds from happening in the first place by securing peace? (Obviously this is not an argument against donating medicines!) Whether we like it or not, negotiations occur at the political level and it is through engagement with politics at every level – from the street to the parliament – that we can change the dynamics of power that currently prevail. This was part of the process in bringing the downfall of apartheid in South Africa when ANC operatives were sent money by sympathisers elsewhere. Of course, it sometimes involves getting our hands dirty and dealing with people in our own political systems that we don’t particularly like. If the purity of the cause supersedes the effectiveness of the outcome, then the cause will remain in the echo chamber and innocent civilians will continue to be killed with impunity. “Doing something” is not the same as doing something effective.