A Troubled Comparison


There has been much analogizing Gaza to Northern Ireland and Hamas to the IRA in the blogosphere, including odd hypothetical comparisons between the deification of Michael Collins and, say, a bathetic  biopic of Hamas leader like Ahmed Yassin. The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland says that "If republicans and unionists—who once wished each other dead—can sit in government together, then surely Israelis and Palestinians are not fated to fight for ever." The selection of former Sen. George Mitchell as peace envoy to the Middle East suggests that Barack Obama sees something in the comparison too. Another hopeful Guardian columnist writes that Mitchell "will bring the same quiet determination to negotiations on the Israeli-Arab front that he did as Bill Clinton's intermediary in the Troubles." One wonders why Bill Clinton, who desperately tried to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians part of his legacy, didn't see Mitchell's potential in 1998 and ship him off to Jerusalem to prevent the second intifada.

But former Guardian Ireland correspondent Henry McDonald, author of the new book Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein Dressed Up Defeat as Victory, says that while there are similarities between the Irish and Islamist "death cults" (his phrase), the differences are too great as to be useful. But first, the commonalities:

Groups like the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah seem to revel in the iconography of martyrdom. One of the most striking things you notice on a first visit for instance to the Shia heartlands of south Lebanon was the profusion of posters of fallen fighters and murals depicting their new status in a rainbowed paradise after-life of flowing fountains and doves along the walls of towns and villages where Hezbollah and the more openly pro-Syrian Amal were dominant. The iconic imagery, in terms of both tone and style, are almost exactly like those murals of the Irish hunger strikers and fallen IRA 'volunteers' that prior to the latter stages of the peace process covered the walls of west Belfast and Derry, even down to the ubiquitous beards. Moreover, the willingness of IRA and INLA prisoners to sacrifice themselves on hunger strike, to starve themselves to death in pursuit of political causes, seemed to equate with the self-immolaters who strap bombs to their bodies killing themselves as well as their enemies. But in fact this is where the comparisons end and the contrasts begin.

The differences are, alas, for a forthcoming post (so check back tomorrow), though he will doubtless underline the vast ideological and religious separations between the two conflicts—those that demand martyrdom on a scale much greater than anything the H-Block prisoners were capable of; that, in the case of Hamas, desire not just a favorable peace with the enemy but the total destruction of the enemy's state, as enshrined in its charter, etc. And just who are the Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley figures of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

One can only hope that the intractable problems of the Middle East can be solved by the new administration team and George Mitchell, but if they think that the current situation is at all analogous to Northern Ireland, where the IRA was effectively defeated by the time of the ceasefire, they best think again. It might be able to produce another Oslo-like agreement, but, as the Clinton administration discovered, the conditions of such accords are easier to create than they are to enforce.