There are lots of connections between the struggles in Ireland and Palestine. We share an affinity for freedom and sovereignty. And in both places the British Government has played a divisive and repressive role. The shaping of the law to allow states to kill, imprison, torture, demonise, marginalise and oppress a community have been part and parcel of our joint experiences over many decades.
Senior British military figures and at least one former RUC Chief Constable, Ken Newman, learned their trade in part in the Middle East region.
The north was also a laboratory for the British state. New and ever more sophisticated surveillance technology, the gathering and holding of intelligence on citizens, the recruitment of agents and informers, the use of collusion and the running by British agencies of counter gangs were all a part of this. The case this week of UVF agent Gary Haggarty is a case in point.
The deployment of rubber and plastic bullets were a part of this also, along with CS and CR gas. In the five years after their introduction in 1970 fifty six thousand rubber bullets were fired in the north. They were then replaced by plastic bullets. In the five years after that thirteen thousand of these were fired. In 1981, the year of the hunger strike, almost thirty thousand plastic bullets were fired. 17 people, including 8 children were killed. Hundreds more were maimed for life.
One of those killed was 11 year old Stephen McConomy from Derry. Stephen died on April 19th 1982 three days after he was shot in the head by a plastic bullet fired by a member of the British Army’s Royal Anglian Regiment. He was out playing with friends. There was no trouble, no riots, no confrontation between local people and the Brits. Residents who tried to go to Stephen’s aid were prevented from doing so by the soldiers. He was eventually taken to Altnagelvin hospital in Derry and then to the RVH in Belfast where he died.
One of the iconic images of the years of conflict, taken by Chris McAuley then a journalist from An Phoblacht, was of Stephen lying in the intensive care unit in the RVH. Efforts by the British Army to prevent and arrest her were only stopped by the intervention of Stephen’s father.
All of this came to mind when I saw a photograph of 15 year old Mohammed Tamimi, a Palestinian youth, who just before Christmas was shot at close range with a plastic bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. The bullet that struck Mohammed entered his face under his nose, broke his jaw and lodged in his skull. He was placed in an induced coma and underwent a seven hour operation. In the Israeli version of the plastic bullet the round is about the same size as a real bullet. It is metal and coated with plastic. The damage it can do is characteristic of that used in the north.
The similarity in the photographs of two children lying in hospital beds hooked up to machines fighting for their lives after being struck by these lethal weapons is a potent reminder of the impact of state violence.
An hour after Mohammed was shot, and only metres from that incident, his 16 year old cousin Ahed Tamimi challenged Israeli forces who were on the family’s land. She slapped two of the heavily armed soldiers. Ahed was subsequently arrested and is now in Israeli custody awaiting a military trial. She has been refused bail and if convicted faces between 10 and 14 years in an Israeli prison.
Ahed’s treatment has made her an international figure of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression. Demonstrations in support of her have been held around the world, including here in Ireland. Amnesty International has called for her release and the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticised Israel.
I and others have raised her situation in the Dáil with the Taoiseach. Ahed’s seventeenth birthday was on Wednesday and there were many demonstrations held around the world to coincide with this and demanding her release. Her military trial was also due to begin the same day.
She is part of another generation of Palestinian children who have grown up under occupation knowing nothing else but military raids, house demolitions, the theft of land and water rights, arrests, and aggression and hostility from an Israeli state that treats them as less than second class. Israel’s apartheid system continues to cause great hardship and poverty for the people of Palestine. The fabric of life for most Palestinians is rooted in fear; it is arbitrary and constantly changing at the whim of the Israeli authorities.
Since President Trump’s announcement on December 6th that he recognises Jerusalem the United Nations has reported that at least 345 Palestinian children have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces. At least 17 Palestinians have been killed.
I would urge anyone concerned with the situation in the Middle East to join the protests in support of Ahed. Ultimately however, if the Israeli government is to be moved, and if a meaningful peace process is to begin, it will require the efforts of governments and the international community. Very specifically, the Irish government should implement the Oireachtas decision from 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine and to upgrade the Palestinian Mission in Dublin to that of a full Embassy.
For our part we who live in Ireland are thankful that our children no longer die in conflict. No matter who the perpetrator was the violent death of a child is a dreadful event for parents. For families and communities. They will never forget what happened. They should not be expected to. But In Ireland those days are now history. That is not the case for Palestinian children. Let’s try to make it so.