From Irish Political Review: June 2008

Palestine: Has Cowen's new Fianna Fáil the bottle to act?

In 1948, following the UN partition of the previous year, the Jewish colonisation of Palestine escalated into an all out campaign of ethnic cleansing. Within the year over 700,000 of the native population had been driven from their lands. This occurred in a climate of terror and panic, precipitated by selectively organised massacres, such as that engineered by Menachim Begin's Irgun unit at Deir Yassin. The process also involved the levelling of 500 villages, much brutality and some rape, against a weak and fragmented Arab resistance. The Israeli slogan at the time was "a land without people for a people without land."

During this process the State of Israel allowed for in the UN Partition was established, but over a territory far greater than set out in the partition. In fact, the borders of the 1947 UN Partition are the only borders of Israel ever sanctioned under "International Law".

Since 1967 the land of the West Bank too has been brazenly colonised. Nearly 350,000 settlers have been landed there—often poor Russian immigrants given little choice. To speak of "illegal settlements" is to descend to Orwell-speak, as all these settlements are "illegal" under "international law". Roads, and now railways, criss-cross the occupied territories, and from every spot the visitor sees monstrous concrete settlements tower over them. To cross these "Israeli only roads"—a perverse reminder of German-only parks and suchlike in the 1930s—Palestinians queue for hours, facing ritual humiliation and the likelihood, if young and male, of being refused "permission" to proceed to their places of work. There are no longer the makings of a "Palestinian State" in the parcels of land still occupied by Palestinians, but only a necklace of Bantustans, and every Palestinian knows it. Including the three million who now live in exile. Ireland was probably something like this in the 1650s, or the 1700s.

Creating "facts on the ground"—in a context of unashamed US/UK support and EU paralysis caused by German guilt—continues to this day as the primary tactic of Jewish nationalists in the colonisation of Palestine. The State of Israel actually founded in 1948 is inseparable from the targeted campaign of ethnic cleansing that accompanied it, and that continues to accompany its relentless expansion. The full scale of those events has become more widely known, not least since the appearance last year of a book no one can contest or has contested—The ethnic cleansing of Palestine by renowned Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé.

In Ireland the activists of the "Irish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign" (IPSC) have worked hard and admirably to bring the story of the Palestinian "Nakba" ("Catastrophe") to public awareness, linking it in with the Irish historical memory the revisionists have yet to fully eradicate. Working closely with the Palestinian exile population in Ireland, IPSC organised a Nakba memorial march in April, addressed by a range of politicians such as Michael D. Higgins (Labour), Mary Lou MacDonald (Sinn Fein), Joe Higgins (Socialist Party), Jim Higgins (Fine Gael MEP), Senator David Norris and others. Norris spoke of his close ties with Israel and how he had been a strong supporter of it in the past. But he now believed its rampant colonisation of Palestine and destruction of its people had to be halted and reversed. The future of the Jewish people in Palestine was with their Palestinian neighbours, preferably in a single state, not least given that the international wellspring of settlers for Israel had been exhausted and—with the rise of China—the days of US world hegemony were numbered.

The growing impact of the IPSC became clear that day when a message hurriedly telephoned through to IPSC chairperson Marie Crawley just before the march announced that pop singer Bono, who is something of a world icon on "development issues", had finally rejected an invitation to attend a conference in Israel celebrating the foundation of the state.

The IPSC also appealed to other 'notables' approached to attend Israeli celebration events. These include novelist Niall Williams, who became famous about ten years ago for his internationally acclaimed novel, Four Letters of Love, but has since faded somewhat. He was invited to address an "International Writers Festival" coinciding with the Israeli anniversary celebrations. He wrestled with his conscience, and won. Others, however, turned down the invitations, and Aosdána, the Irish state-sponsored body for artists created by Charles Haughey, adopted a motion encouraging artists "to reflect deeply before engaging in co-operation...with state-sponsored Israeli cultural events and institutions".

The IPSC has held numerous demonstrations, photographic exhibitions and other events throughout urban and rural Ireland highlighting the Nakba and the continued campaign to destroy the Palestinian nation. This has included not least the showing of the films "Occupation 101" and "The Wall" in work places and community halls throughout Ireland. You read little of this in the Irish media, needless to add. If young militants in Ireland today have a 'cause', it is the Palestinian cause.

Hundreds of people have been brought on trips to the West Bank to see conditions for themselves and meet with all shades of social and political opinion. This is largely the work of one indomitable but unprepossessing woman, Elaine Daly, a clerical worker in the INTO. In addition, as reported previously in Irish Political Review, last year the Irish Congress of Trade Unions passed a lengthy and detailed motion by overwhelming majority in support of the Palestinian cause. This stance is unique in international Trade Unionism, and sparked a major PR campaign in Ireland by the Israeli lobby. The ICTU followed up its initiative by sending a high level Trade Union delegation to Palestine and Israel, accompanied by some activists from "Trade Union Friends of Palestine" (TUFP). The report of that delegation still remains to be published and appears to have become bogged down in backroom political intrigue.

On 7th May at the Ballsbridge Court Hotel (formerly the Berkley Court) in Dublin the Israeli Embassy hosted a "Celebration" of the foundation of the Israeli State. It was attended by various dignitaries, business people and some of the cream of Dublin middle class society. It was notable by the absence of politicians, however, though this can be partly explained by the fact that that evening the Dáil was meeting to elect Brian Cowen as Taoiseach. In a dignified protest outside, about 100 demonstrators from IPSC held placards denouncing this "celebration of ethnic cleansing" and the "destruction of a nation".

There is a deep sense of unease in Fianna Fáil circles at Irish complicity via EU "foreign policy" in the colonisation of Palestine and the destruction of its people. This has obvious historical roots, and parallels. Though de Valera and many others were sympathetic to Jewish nationalism, for many years Ireland held back from recognising the actual state created in Israel, and diplomatic relations with Israel were only finally established by Foreign Minister Garret Fitzgerald—a political devotee of Churchill—under the Coalition Government of the 1970s.

Unease aside, Irish policy on Palestine and Israel is today merely a subset of EU policy. In line with this, then Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, speaking in the Dáil on 11th March 2008, denounced the barbarous Israeli military onslaught and economic strangulation of Gaza as "collective punishment illegal under international humanitarian law" (in fact under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) but also stated the Irish Government's categoric opposition to any sanctions against Israel for this breach. In this stance, Ahern himself was in breach of the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement which is contingent (Article 2) on Israel honouring human rights law, and also of his own Programme for Government, which more or less reduces Irish foreign policy to the implementation of UN resolutions. As pointed out by David Morrison in the last issue of Irish Political Review there are over 30 UN Resolutions of which Israel is currently in flagrant breach. By its refusal to act under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention in a war situation over which Ireland has some say, Ireland is in fact arguably in breach of it, and hence guilty of a war crime.

This writer took part a little over a year ago in a meeting in Iveagh House with senior officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs, some time after returning from one of Elaine Daly's trips to Palestine. The meeting only finally took place after the then Irish Times columnist Eddie Holt revealed duplicitous behaviour by the Department in its treatment of a member of the delegation, Declan McKenna. Declan had brought back video footage of brutal treatment by Israeli guards and soldiers of Palestinian pilgrims seeking to go through an approved turnstile in the Apartheid Wall to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The footage showed stun grenades and rifle butts being rained down on a terrified crowd—which, much like an Irish crowd at Knock included many old men, women and children—by grinning Israeli border guards.

At the meeting with the Department, the senior official from the "Middle East Desk" (sic.) stated that Irish policy on Palestine was integral with EU policy, the framework in which we operated. It was pointed out that Ireland was not legally obliged to knuckle under to EU foreign policies with which it disagreed (this was the pre-Lisbon situation). It was also stated that EU policy on Palestine-Israel was crippled by the heritage of German guilt and that Israeli treatment of the ghettoised Palestinian population was anyway in breach of the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement. This EU Agreement grants Israel preferential trading rights with the EU but, in its Article 2, also makes those trading benefits conditional on Israel upholding human rights law, which it blatantly doesn't. His supine response to this was that Ireland was already regarded in EU foreign affairs circles as the strongest supporter of "the Palestinians" and consistently went as far as it could, including arguing that the EU should treat with the duly elected leaders of the Palestinians, i.e. Hamas. He nonsensed the idea that the Government could have any role in seeking the divestment of Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH) from subsidiaries involved in the construction of the ghetto wall, though that wall had been condemned by the International Criminal Court. We heard afterwards that—contrary to Department practice—no note of this meeting was circulated in Iveagh House.

The EU boycott of Hamas at the behest of Israel continues. In the absence of a strong France, German foreign policy is a dangerous thing (as German fans of the EU would be the first to argue). The destruction of Yugoslavia, for example, followed from Germany's insistence on its dismemberment into national statelets along wholly unrealistic boundaries. These boundaries—which left a third of the Serbian population outside the proposed Serbian State—had been imposed by Tito to keep Serbia from dominating the Federation. This German foreign policy initiative—its first following the formal end of its own military occupation by the World War Two Allies in 1991—led to the worst war in Europe in the last 45 years. Germany is now throwing its weight around on Israel—and in the process is disabling EU policy towards Palestine-Israel. On her election as Chancellor, one of Angela Merkel's first public statements was to the effect that Germany would not tolerate criticism of Israel and that this would be a fundamental principle of German foreign policy under her Government.

In a speech to the Knesset last month Angela Merkel stated that historic responsibility for the security of Israel was part of Germany's "raison d'etre as a state" and therefore for her, "as German Chancellor, non-negotiable". In an interview with the influential German liberal weekly, Die Zeit (15th May 2008), Israeli Foreign Minister Zipi Liwni stated that there was a "clash of ideologies" in the Middle East, with Israel seeing itself as part of the West. Israel and Europe "shared the same values after all" she said. The response of Die Zeit?: "They are like us—60 years after the foundation of Israel, the country belongs with Europe". It was time to start the process "of the accession of the Jewish State to membership of the EU". And without illusions: "Close ties with Israel, or even its embedding in the EU, would demand more robust attitudes and means. Europe would be exposed to immensely greater risks." It would mean that the "dividing line between the EU and the Arab world, including a Palestinian State, would run exactly along the line of the definitive borders of Israel…".

The IPSC is now challenging Irish politics with these and related facts. And it seems an opportune moment. So what is Ireland? The key dividing line in Irish politics is not between Right and Left. It is between forces (of right and left) promoting social development through a process of national formation on the one hand, and forces (again of right and left) seeking to abort that process in favour of dissolution into a provincial West Britainism on the other. There are even pro- and anti-EU positions represented within the logic of the two sides.

Minister Conor Lenihan last year memorably described Fianna Fáil's history in shaping the Irish nation state since the 1930s as a constant process of negotiation with the British interest in Ireland, south and north. And there can be no doubt that since the collapse of 1970, when the state paralysed itself in failing to confront the Northern crisis, and then, in its treatment of the acquitted defendants of the Arms Trial, denied itself, Fianna Fáil has occupied an embattled minority position, even if still capable of winning elections. It has been making something of a comeback, if a very defensive one, since Charles Haughey's Governments of the late 1980s. Labour's disastrous capitulation to an obscure campaign of destabilisation in 1994 not only ended a highly popular Government, but also it seems the useful history of the Labour Party. This was followed by a brief and exotic Coalition Government headed by John Bruton, who now declares Irish Independence to have been a mistake. Resuming in 1997, a few re-stabilising Fianna Fáil regimes under Bertie Ahern followed, and these seem now to have given way to a possibly more self assertive and robust era of Fianna Fáil recovery, if Brian Cowen's first speeches, and his appointment of his first Cabinet, are anything to go by.

A litmus test of Fianna Fáil's recovery will be the direction it takes (or fails to take) in foreign policy matters. This is because the fundamental divide in Irish politics also runs through approaches to foreign policy. The choice is to follow the "liberal" lead of Blairite Britain on all matters, or to strike out in new directions. These opposing tendencies will be reflected in the development of the Irish position on what is probably the key foreign policy issue of importance in the world today: Palestine-Israel, on which the entire Middle Eastern "crisis" hinges. An independent foreign policy—the hallmark of a free nation—will be tested on how Irish policy develops in this case.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is an inheritance from the break-up of the British Empire, or rather from a time when it was breaking up but thought it was expanding. Our current Government, in its Programme for Government, declares Irish foreign policy to be securely anchored in the UN and all its works. The UN creates "International Law" which is then binding on every state except the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, who are absolved from any obligations under it. It also does not apply to any other state which the Five Members—or more precisely US-UK, depending on the other three not thinking a fight on their latest whim worthwhile—decide will be exempt. In other words, in the present case, Israel. The current Irish position on the nature of the UN is an easy fiction. While make-believe and fudge sometimes have a useful role to play in human affairs, hiding behind the fiction of UN "international law" in current times is only debilitating.

De Valera understood these things. In the 1930s he sought to break out of the effective blockade of Ireland by the British Empire by various means, including by adherence to and active participation in the League of Nations. In particular he advocated rigorous implementation of its ideal of "Collective Security". When he sought sanctions by the League to counter the Italian imperialist invasion of Abyssinia, the British threatened a veto. Britain was at the time—for anti-communist reasons—in pro-Dictator mode, and supported Italian imperialism in Africa, even though Italy was taking more than the British had 'granted' it under the Treaty of London (1915) to induce it to join their war on Germany. De Valera was many things, but not a dupe. Realising he could not save Ethiopia, he immediately declared the "collective security" of the League a lame duck and returned to Ireland to prepare his own country's survival in the looming imperialist war through a robust policy of neutrality.

Will the apparent assertiveness of the new Cowen Government also be reflected in a move to carve out a foreign policy more in Ireland's interests? Will it be reflected in an Irish-led initiative at EU level towards Palestine? Or will the Cowen Government fail to have the bottle of de Valera? We will hold our breath. As for the Palestinians themselves, well they are desperate but by no means crushed. Like other previous colonisations in what is now termed the "Anglosphere", the natives of Palestine were meant to go away into the desert and disappear through a process of self destruction on the American Indian model. They have yet to oblige.

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