Ulster parallels (Jeremy Bowen)

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BBC Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, keeps a blog in relation to his reportage. His 13 January 2009 entry is a response to an article by Ethan Bonner, published in the International Herald Tribute (“Israelis are united on war in Gaza as censure rises abroad“). In Bowen’s posting, he makes his comparison with Northern Ireland, with confessed reservation.

Ulster parallels

I have never liked comparisons between Northern Ireland and the conflict here. Apart from the fact that they are not always helpful, writing and broadcasting about the Middle East is a good enough way to make enemies. I don’t need another set.

But think about this. For many years Britain faced an insurgency and at times a low-level civil war in Northern Ireland. Those sorts of terms weren’t used all that much but that’s what it was.

At different times the IRA planted bombs on the British mainland that killed people and did a lot of damage. The actions of the British security forces during three decades of the Troubles were very controversial, and still are today. Sometimes the British army killed innocent people.

But Britain never used heavy weapons, fast jets, air strikes and attack helicopters. Tracked armoured vehicles were very rarely seen.

And it has emerged that there were many secret contacts over the years with the paramilitaries. In the end, there were years of negotiations. Prisoners who were serving long sentences were released as part of the price of peace, even, in the phrase used in this part of the world, if they had “blood on their hands”.

There is no doubt about the extreme suffering that Israel is inflicting on Palestinians in Gaza to protect, in its view, its own citizens. It is deepening the hatred for Israel that many people in Gaza felt anyway.

Israel has used what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls the iron fist many times before. And its citizens still feel insecure.

Will they feel any different when this latest episode is over?

To answer Bowen’s query, it is not true that “any” country would respond to insurgent/terrorist attacks the way Israel is doing. Any country can do so, of course, but whether it would reflects strategic decisions. To say any would certainly respond in this way is reductionist and an outright frightening proposition.

Also, with so many children being killed, this “punishment” is hardly likely to encourage any sense of moderation by Hamas or the overall population in Gaza, as well outlined by Isabel Kershner (“War on Hamas saps Palestinian leaders“). It is more assuredly likely to encourage victimhood, which will serve the militants well (plenty of global examples).

With the caveat of obvious differences, imagine such an all-out affront by British armed forces against IRA “assets” (Sinn Fein-used council offices, schools, residential tower blocks). Not reasonable to expect the wider Irish nationalist population in Northern Ireland to respond, “Oh yes, we must now support the moderate SDLP because the Brits won’t bomb us then!” The idea that the Palestinian Authority is going to benefit from Israeli bombardment is ludicrous.

Indeed, last night the BBC broadcast another piece by Bowen, on how radicalisation of the Gaza situation poses its own challenges to the more secular, neighbouring regimes. He exemplified this via an interview with the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Excellent journalism: putting events in a wider context for an improved analysis.

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