Israel’s state violence is being shielded by plastic ‘peace-building’

Calls to export Northern Irish-style ‘peace’ to the Middle East ignore that it isn’t peace at all

As the dust settles on the latest bout of asymmetrical violence in the Middle East that has left at least 243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead, the language of forging an “enduring peace” has returned. Calls for increased humanitarian aid to help rebuild Gaza are heard alongside an espoused commitment to “peace-building” efforts from the international community, with the usual clamour around reinvigoration of the long-defunct two-state “solution”.

Not for the first time, Northern Ireland has been mooted as a fitting model to emulate. And why not? The 1998 Belfast Agreement is routinely lauded on the international stage as an example of how to bring a seemingly intractable conflict to an end. As former British secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain once claimed, “If one of the longest-running conflicts in European history can be resolved, then there is hope for even the most bitter and seemingly intractable disputes across the globe”. Long-drawn equivalences between Palestine-Israel and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland provide the rationale for comparison, not least due to strong identification between communities across the divide, as evidenced by Palestinian and Israeli flags flown in communal opposition.

Since the ushering-in of peace in Northern Ireland there has been a proliferation of initiatives and enterprises that have sought to bring the lessons of Ireland’s “peace-building” experience to other global trouble spots, including Palestine-Israel. Former-combatants, “peace” institutes, think tanks, bureaucrats, diplomatic missions, academics, religious and other civil society actors have become participants in what has become an amply resourced industry. With the International Fund for Ireland as a blueprint, an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace has managed to secure $250 million from the US House of Representatives, with a further nominal commitment from the UK government for what is “envisioned as a $200 million annual fund”.

To suggest that “peace-building” may be anything other than a wholesome and worthy pursuit may be an unpopular position to take, but it is vital to question the peace that is being promoted and whose interests are being served. A year after the Nakba of 1948 – an event described by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé as the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine” – the UN hosted peace talks in Lausanne. On the agenda for resolution were matters that to this day remain unresolved: borders, the status of Jerusalem, the repatriation of refugees, Palestinian property. For Palestinians waiting for justice, time can be measured in subsequent peace processes – Wye River, Camp David, Oslo, Hebron, Taba, Beirut. Meanwhile, Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian land and oppression of the people has continued, unopposed in any meaningful way by the international community – the very same nations that sponsor peace talks.


Ongoing colonisation

At his inaugural speech at the United Nations Security Council in January, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney cited the “intractable conflict” in Palestine and Israel. This is a serious mistake for one who is earnest about bringing peace. The situation is not “a conflict” but rather there is conflict, born out of long-standing injustice and ongoing colonisation – currently evidenced by Israel’s attempts to forcibly transfer Palestinian citizens from their homes in the Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah – and the continued denial of Palestinians their rights under international law.

To refer to the situation as a conflict in these circumstances is to apply a grammar that is values-laden and aligned with a particular world-view, one that endorses the acts of the powerful and simultaneously denies justice to the colonised. In this grammar, armed soldiers firing on unarmed civilians become “clashes”, Palestinian lands and homes become “contested spaces” and a state being investigated for war crimes in Gaza “has the right to defend itself” while bombing a territory comprising 80 per cent refugees that it occupies (affirmed by the UN despite Israeli claims to the contrary) and has laid siege to for 15 years.

When the violence of Israel’s settler colonialism is met with the Palestinian right of resistance (as affirmed under UN Resolution 37/43) the imposition of “peace-building” interventions, contrived in centres of power and sponsored by countries that trade with and arm Israel, must be held up to scrutiny. As scholars who have explored the exportation of the Northern Irish “peace-building” experience to Palestine-Israel, we are clear; the “peace” that is being exported is not “peace” at all, but rather a form of pacification that marginalises calls for justice and embeds a deeply unbalanced status quo using the language of “reconciliation”, “dialogue” and “cross-community”, all central to the optics of peace in Northern Ireland and indeed in other liberal interventionist approaches to peace. Northern Ireland’s “peace-building” experience, almost completely silent on its own colonial past, when pressed into service in Palestine-Israel, pours cold water on those who continue to struggle against colonisation and who are seeking to resist the very real prospect of being forcibly removed from their homes, of those fighting for survival in the face of erasure. “Peace-building” practices are thus weaponised as instruments of pacification in Palestine.

No justice, no peace

Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, veterans of anticolonial struggle who are hailed now as great peace-makers, both understood that there can be no peace without justice. Last week two pre-eminent groups of scholars separately wrote to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court both calling for intervention from the court for crimes unfolding before our eyes against the Palestinian people. Scholars of genocide, mass violence and human rights wrote: “Palestinians, their history, and the ongoing Israeli state violence against them since the Nakba in 1948 have been marginalised in our field for far too long.” While legal scholars declared that “What is now occurring is the latest in a series of gross injustices that together may be construed as a continuation of the Nakba of 1948, and the Naksa [displacement ofPalestinians after the six-day war] of 1967”.

International law cannot be partisan and must be applied equally and for all.

Ireland has taken a first and vastly important step in recognising that settlement building is de facto annexation – a crime under international law. The next step has to be the enactment of the Occupied Territories Bill, banning the trade in goods from stolen Palestinian land and the application of sanctions to Israel for its breaches of law. We cannot be bystanders or, worse, accomplices in what history will reveal to be a terrible crime.

This is not the time for plastic peace-making.

Elaine Bradley is an independent researcher, human rights activist and organisational development expert. Dr Brendan Ciarán Browne is assistant professor of conflict resolution at Trinity College Dublin