Irish History Resonates In Gaza

Palestine Historical Map

“I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn/ Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”― W. H. Auden,

There were elements in Ireland whose anger against Britain overwhelmed any other sentiment. Three hundred years of settler colonialism, dispossession and denigration of language, culture, and religion, left a legacy of deep-seated resentment. I was born in Donegal, part of the province of Ulster, and often heard my father’s smoldering resentment at the historical traumas still raw in Ulster up to the 1998 Peace Accord when the Easter Friday agreement allowed Indigenous Irish Nationalists to experience the same civil rights as British Loyalists.

I had rebelled at my father’s one-sided view of history, which considered one nation as the source of evil as it pertained to Ireland. But after reading and reflecting on 17th century Irish history that involved three invasions from England resulting in a 40% reduction of the native population and a million Irish starving to death in the Great Hunger of the mid-19th century in a famine that could have been averted if not for the English policy of “laissez-faire”. I gradually came to a better understanding of my father’s perspective.

It was not until the late 19th century that Prime Minister Gladstone helped to enact legislation to free the indigenous Irish from the onerous and exacting rents that had supported a landlord system which had seen the majority of the wealth of the country siphoned into British and Anglo-Irish hands.

It was during the WWI postwar period that Britain enacted the Balfour Declaration which gave tacit approval to allowing an influx of Jewish immigrants into Israel. In the Declaration only a couple of phrases were given over to acknowledging that the Indigenous Palestinians needed to be treated fairly.

By 1930 the Jewish population was one-third of the population of Israel but only owned 7% of the land. By 1935 Haifa had a majority Jewish population. In the early 1930s PM Ramsey McDonald admitted that Jewish settlements in Palestine were the purpose of the League of Nations Mandate.

David Ben-Gurion in 1934 stated: “The Palestinian Arabs will not be sacrificed so that Zionism might be realized. According to our conception of Zionism, we are neither desirous nor capable of building our future in Palestine at the expense of Arabs…”

With the onslaught of WWII and the tragedy of the holocaust, funds from Europe and an annual subsidy of $3 billion worth of weapons from the U.S. Israel population substantially increased. But this was not the case with the Palestinians. Their land continued to contract as dispossession became normalized. The result has been a further marginalization of the Indigenous Palestinians and their desperation as the Jewish leadership, in league with the Israeli settlers in the West Bank, have found even more ways to expropriate Palestinian land.

As was the case in Ireland and the Americas in the 17th and 18thcenturies, the victims of land expropriation were blamed for resisting or fighting back. In Israel’s case any criticism concerning the dispossession of Palestinian land is viewed as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Peace groups, such as Gush Shalom, founded in 1993 by Uri Avnery, have decried the illegal taking of land by settlers in the West Bank. Gush Shalom does not believe in the “so called national consensus” which it considers to be based on misinformation. It wishes “to establish an independent and sovereign State of Palestine”.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister suggested in a 1918 book that the “fellahin [indigenous rural villagers] are descended from ancient Jewish and Samaritan farmers”, In more recent years, genetic studies have demonstrated that, at least paternally, “Jewish ethnic divisions” and the Palestinians are related to each other. Genetic studies on Jews have shown that Jews and Palestinians are closer to each other than the Jews are to their host countries. Given this genetic proximity to each other, one would think that fair dealing and genuine rapprochement would be honored and encouraged.

The Israeli historian, Ihan Pappe, who explored Palestinian issues, wrote in “The Forgotten Palestinians”: that “the policy towards the Palestinian minority was determined by a security minded group of decision makers and executed by Ben Gurion’s…advisors on Arab affairs, who were in favor of expelling as many Palestinians as possible and confining the rest within well-guarded enclaves”.

In the present time we are faced with the brutal attack by the extremist militant group, Hamas, who emerged from Gaza with incredible fury and slaughtered hundreds of Israeli people. These horrific acts have brought upon themselves, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, terrible consequences, as Israeli military forces, supported by American weapons, have caused death and injury to many innocent victims; 40% are estimated to be children. Did Hamas really consider the terrible retribution that would be exacted when they undertook their fool-hardy act?

The historical causes of conflict in Gaza still have to be faced, despite this atrocity. The disproportionate bombing of civilians, in response to Hamas horrific acts, does not consider the terrible effects on the children of Gaza, who have already been traumatized by ten Israeli military assaults between 2006 and 2023. In just one of these assaults in 2008 1,417 Palestinian and 13 Israeli deaths took place.

Thousands are now suffering injury and death in Gaza with an estimate of 1000 children having already died from Israeli air strikes. This disproportionate response to Hamas may also have the purpose of compelling Palestinians to leave their ancestral land. Dispossession by whatever means is an ancient tactic, whether taking place in Ireland or in the expropriating of Indigenous land from Native Americans.

In the 21st century reconciliation groups have sprung up in the U.S. and Canada to help redress and atone for the deep traumas caused by dispossession, as well as by the Residential school system. Israel still has time to change its policies and follow the recommendations of Gush Shalom: to “safeguard the security of both Israel and Palestine by mutual agreement and guarantees”

Hugh Curran is a Lecturer in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine


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