August 1969 was a tipping point in the history of the north. Sectarian pogroms, a feature of nineteenth century Belfast and partition, returned to the streets of Belfast with hundreds of families in Ardoyne, the lower Falls and the Clonard area being forcibly evicted from their homes. Loyalist mobs led by the RUC and B Specials attacked Catholic homes. Filmed sequences from the period show families scrambling desperately to save belongings as they abandoned their homes with flames billowing behind them and smoke rising into the air. Whole streets of terraced homes, local businesses and mills were destroyed.The refugees carried their children, bundles of clothes and small pieces of furniture in their arms or on their backs while larger pieces were left abandoned in the street or piled onto to flat bed lorries to be carried off.
The streets of the Falls Road and Ardoyne were a war zone. It was a terrifying time. In the three days between August 14 and 16 eight people were killed and scores more injured. The familiar streetscape in the Falls that I had grown up in was shattered. The close knit community was left battered and bleeding. The image of frightened families running for their lives and the sense of devastation, of gutted buildings and of makeshift defensive barricades are still fresh in my mind. As are the rolls of barbed wire strung arbitrarily across streets by British Army squaddies as the first of Belfast’s separation walls took shape.Many of the families ended up in schools in Andersonstown, including – St. Teresa’s, Holy Child and La Salle. They lived in overcrowded classrooms. Desks pushed up against side walls. They slept on mattresses among the bits and pieces of furniture they retained.
The August pogrom was the failure of politics and it set the scene for decades of conflict.I was reminded of the overcrowded Belfast schools while watching a report on the 120,000 Palestinian citizens who have been forcibly evicted from their homes by the Israeli military. Thousands of homes have been flattened by no warning Israeli bombs from air, sea and tank. Most of the refugees have taken shelter in some 61 schools and other property run by the United Nations. Conditions are appalling. Too many people, not enough mattresses, blankets, food and water. And all living under the imminent threat of Israeli bombs.
The Director of Operations for UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) which provides aid to refugees said: “These men, women and children are relying on us to provide them with shelter and the reality is that UNWRA only had relief supplies in stock for 35,000 people.” The real figure at time of writing is four times that.The scale of the nightmare in Gaza is so much bigger than our Belfast experience. In two weeks over 700 Palestinians have been killed – mainly civilians and children. Thousands more have been grievously injured and rushed into hospitals inadequately resourced after eight years of an Israeli siege and themselves the target for Israeli attack.
A report in the London Guardian at the weekend told of an Israeli assault on Shujai’iya district in at “least 100 Palestinians were killed – 67 on one area - … the corpses of women and children were strewn in streets of Shujai’iya as people fled on foot and packed into vehicles.”Nowhere is safe. Four people were killed when Israeli tankls bombed the al-Aqsa hospitasl. In Khan Younis Israeli bombs destroyed a home killing 24 members of one family. Whether on the beach or at home children have been deliberately targeted as Israel engages in the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.
Each news report brings another story of horror and destruction as the death toll rises.The Palestinian people are the victims of one of the great injustices of the modern era. For over sixty years millions have lived in refugee camps. Most know no other life. Opportunities for political progress and peace have been squandered by successive ruthless Israeli governments hungry for Palestinian land and water and determined to ensure that Palestinians remain fractured, impoverished and too weak to challenge Israeli aggression.
In 2009 I saw for myself the disastrous impact that the Israeli siege was having on the lives of the people of Gaza. I was angry. I was only there two days and I was angry.Imagine living in those conditions for generations. If you deny people the right to a job, to a home, to freedom and control of their own destiny then don’t be surprised if they too are angry.
If you force almost two million people to live in a huge open prison where there the future looks likely to be a replay of the past then don’t be surprised if they are angry.The powerful governments of the world have stood back and time after time excused Israeli actions, proclaiming that Israel has the right to defend itself. What of the right of the Palestinian people to security and defence?
In a new low the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of using “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Israel kills 600 Palestinians and then blames the Palestinians for the media news reports.As long as world leaders accept the single narrative of Israel then there will be no peace in that region. There is a Palestinian narrative that must be given equal validity and a Palestinian people who deserve hope and peace for the future.
Around the world countless demonstrations have been held in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Those efforts must be intensified in the time ahead. At the weekend I urged the Irish government to go beyond the politics of empty rhetoric and expel the Israeli Ambassador – to set an example for the rest of the EU. There is widespread support for this.