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In the 1982 Irish movie Angel, set against the backdrop of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, is a scene in which one character asks another, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?"
"Neither," is the reply; "Actually, I'm Jewish."
"Okay," responds the first character; "But tell me, are you a Protestant Jew, or a Catholic Jew?"
When I first saw the film it reminded me of an experience I had just a year earlier while hitchhiking across Ireland. One day a garrulous middle-aged Irishman picked me up just south of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. He wasted no time in bluntly asking me: "So tell me now, what do you think of the IRA?"
In other words, was I a Catholic Jew, or Protestant Jew?
It soon became clear he strongly preferred me to be the former - and in truth, my sympathies did lie strongly in that direction. Northern Ireland, I felt then and now, was largely a neocolonial British construct, and the Irish republican cause was at its heart a just one. Despite this though, to my driver's increasing displeasure, I condemned the IRA's terrorist tactics in the strongest possible terms. Nothing, I argued, not even centuries of English oppression and Protestant discrimination, justified the use of indiscriminate bombing attacks that deliberately targeted civilians.
Although the discussion grew quite heated, fortunately (for me) my host's sense of Irish hospitality outweighed his political sensibility, and he resisted the temptation to dump me out of his car in the middle of Irish bog country. Still, while I failed to changed any Irish minds that day (or any other day), a quarter-century later it appears that all but the most extreme elements in Ireland now share the view that violence fails to serve the cause of Irish unity.
As the AP reported earlier this month: "The Irish Republican Army has disbanded units for weapons-making, arms-smuggling, recruiting and training, an expert panel has reported, in dramatic findings that could boost chances for reviving a Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland. The leaders of Britain and Ireland warmly embraced the conclusions of the Independent Monitoring Commission, a panel that includes former chiefs of the CIA and Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch. In its 60-page report, the panel listed statistics and trends demonstrating the IRA has embraced non-violent politics and is determined to consign its terrorist capability to history."
ONE CAN only pray that this is so. In the meantime, the developments in Ireland have apparently caught the attention of Ahmed Yousef, a senior communications adviser to the Hamas Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. In an op-ed published last week in The New York Times, Yousef argues that Israel and the international community accept from Hamas the concept of a hudna - an Arabic form of temporary truce - as a means of ending the current Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Presumably, though Yousef never says so outright, this hudna would be in place of Hamas having to meet the three conditions - recognition of Israel's right to exist, honoring past agreements, and renouncing terrorism - that Israel, the United States and the European Union have all recognized as pre-conditions for allowing the Hamas government to receive foreign aid and engage in direct negotiations.
In explaining the Hamas view of hudna, Yousef writes: "Such a concept - a period of non-war but only partial resolution of a conflict - is foreign to the West and has been greeted with much suspicion. Many Westerners I speak to wonder how one can stop the violence without ending the conflict. I would argue, however, that this concept is not as foreign as it might seem. After all, the Irish Republican Army agreed to halt its military struggle to free Northern Ireland from British rule without recognizing British sovereignty. Irish Republicans continue to aspire to a united Ireland free of British rule, but rely upon peaceful methods. Had the IRA been forced to renounce its vision of reuniting Ireland before negotiations could occur, peace would never have prevailed. Why should more be demanded of the Palestinians, particularly when the spirit of our people will never permit it?"
Yousef's Orwellian arguments deserve a reply, if only because the Irish peace process, though different in many key respects, does offer some useful guideposts toward solving the conflict here.
First off, there is nothing "foreign to the West" about stopping violence without resolving conflicts - indeed, this is the very basis of conflict-resolution in democratic societies. Nor is anyone - not the US, not the EU, and not the Israeli government - demanding that the Palestinians renounce their dreams of an independent Palestinian state.
What is being demanded is specifically what was required of the IRA - that they renounce violence as the means of achieving that goal, and not just as a temporary measure. It's worth pointing out that the IRA also initially tried out its own version of a hudna, with its 1997 cease-fire declaration. But the British rightly insisted on sticking to the conditions of the Good Friday agreement, which also called for the group to decommission (disarm) its weapons and dismantle its military infrastructure.
Hamas, in contrast, won't even agree to specifically repudiate terrorism, as it daily shoots rockets across the Gaza border into Sderot, threatens to launch a new wave of suicide bombings across Israel, and devotes its efforts, not to alleviating the hardships of Palestinian civilians, but to smuggling into Gaza bigger and badder weaponry with which to attack Israelis.
The IRA and Sinn Fein, despite their hopes of one day seeing a united Ireland, have also committed themselves to the "power-sharing" process which recognizes the rights of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority and the legitimacy of the British government's constitutional claims on Irish soil.
Hamas, again in stark contrast, can't even bring itself to acknowledge that Israel, in any size, shape or form whatsoever, has a right to exist at all.
There's still plenty that can go off-track in the Northern Ireland peace process, especially the resistance of violent extremists to any form of compromise. But those who truly want a fair and just resolution to that conflict know it will only start to move in that direction if they stand firm on their insistence that the terrorism stop for good, and lay down their arms.
And though it's a long way from Ireland to Israel, and the gulf between Jews and Arabs yawns deeper than the one that divides Catholics and Protestants, that's at least one touch of the Irish that holds no less true in this part of the world than the Emerald Isle.
The writer is director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project. www.theisraelproject.org
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