Support for the Palestinian cause, a cause that for so long had touched at the core of the Arab world’s inner history, may be slow in coming to the United States, and just barely now accelerating in Europe, but in Ireland, the land whose people had for centuries suffered mightily at the hands of colonisers, is forthright, upfront and unstinting. It is as if an affinity of spirit defines two peoples who have shared unspeakable suffering in their respective struggles to be free.
Take this as a case in point. The Seanad, the upper house of the Irish parliament, voted on July 11 to pass a bill that would prohibit the import of goods and services from Israeli colonies in the West Bank. The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2016, proposed by Independent Senator Frances Black, and backed by members three parties, will make it an offence to purchase goods and services from these colonies. These colonies, since their inception, have been condemned by the EU, and the international community in general, as illegal. Black said the passing of the bill was not a “radical act” but “the bare minimum that should be expected of an EU member state and a country committed to human rights”.
“We are simply saying that if we are sure that certain goods have been produced as a result of war crimes”, she added, “we should not be trading in them”. Then she posed the rhetorical question: “How can we condemn the [colonies] as illegal, as theft of land and resources, but happily trade in the proceeds of this crime?”
In effect, on this issue, Ireland is the vanguard in Europe, setting an example for other EU countries to follow. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, was quick to take note of that fact. “This courageous step builds on the historic tie between Ireland and Palestine”, he said, “as it shows the way forward for the rest of the European Union”.
Indeed, the ties that bind the peoples of Ireland and Palestine are not just emotional — the bonding, say, of two nations with similar experiences of oppression and exploitation at the hands of occupiers — but historical as well, a fact that passes largely unnoticed by those of us uninitiated in the arcane skills of historical research.
David Cronin, Irish journalist, political activist and prolific writer, who wrote the highly regarded Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel, is a mine of information on that subject. In an article in Irish Times last year, he told of an encounter he had had with a Palestinian scholar at Oxford University. “The conversation helped me grasp why the Irish people tend to feel a sense of affinity with the Palestinians”, he wrote. “Our historical experiences are not identical, but they do have striking parallels”. Striking parallels, one would guess, in proximity.
Consider this. Arthur Balfour, for example, is portrayed as a bete noire in Palestine’s history books (with good reason), but don’t be surprised to see him portrayed in like manner in Ireland’s. Before issuing his infamous declaration in 1917, you see, Balfour had served as Britain’s Chief Secretary of Ireland, where he was best known as a brute who ordered police to open fire on unarmed demonstrators calling for land reform in their country, which earned him the moniker among Irish militants of Bloody Balfour.
Yet Balfour was not the only colonial overlord to leave a deep impact on the history of both Palestine and Ireland. Herbert Samuel, the British Home Secretary, who oversaw the internment of well over 2,000 Irishmen and Irishwomen allegedly involved in the 1916 April Rising, and who ordered the hanging of the Irish patriot Roger Casement for his role in that rising, went on to become the Commissioner of Palestine during Britain’s Mandate years. As a colonial villain, he not only ordered air strikes against Palestinian demonstrators, but in June 1930 ordered the execution, in the coastal city of Acre, of the three young militants, Mohammad Jamjoum, Fouad Hijazi and Atta Al Zeer — three fallen patriots to this day revered in Palestinian modern history and folklore — for their part in the Buraq Uprising against British rule. Enter Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary (a title not considered comical in those days) who, to quell rebellion in Palestine, dispatched there a contingent of Black and Tans, who had served with the Crown during Ireland’s War of Independence. The Black and Tans, of course, was the name given to the British paramilitary forces, made up largely of First World War veterans, formed to defeat Irish rebels — and to do so with utmost brutality and efficient ruthlessness. These folks then took that brutality and ruthlessness with them from Ireland to Palestine.
And there was Ronald Storrs, the Military Governor of Jerusalem, who described himself as “the first military governor of Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate”, went on to define the Balfour Declaration’s purpose as an attempt to “form a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism”.
Beyond that is the fact that the struggle by Palestinians for national freedom hits a chord in the Irish people’s anti-colonial mindset, steeped as it is in the rebellious spirit, and emits echoes from their ancestral story of hardship and destitution. No wonder that the Emerald Isle, the poetic name given to Ireland, for its rolling hills and resplendent greenery, by the radical, early 19th century poet William Drenan, is dear to the heart of every Palestinian, who sees in the historical stamina of Ireland — its people’s ability to stand up to the British, to endure the Great Hunger of the 1840s, to write great books, to share their humanity with those who suffer in the present as they had suffered in the past — a model to emulate and a people to admire.
Just as it is no wonder that in May 2017, the year that coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the Dublin City Council flew the Palestinian flag over City Hall, for the entire month, in a “gesture of solidarity” with the Nakba and its victims.
Ireland and Palestine indeed share a bond that will endure in time and resonate in place so long as there are Irish and Palestinians around.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.