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Here’s what Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine groups in Ireland have to say about the conflict

We spoke to both.

AS A RESPONSE to the latest escalation of violence in the Middle-East, activist groups on both sides have become more visible, often criticising media coverage of what is happening.

TheJournal.ie spoke to two groups who campaign on the issue in Ireland, asking them the same set of questions.

It’s not intended to be an authoritative account on the conflict, but a balanced spaced where both sides can outline what they do and why.

Irish4Israel

Barry Williams answered on behalf of Irish4Israel.

PastedImage-63292 Irish4Israel says it promotes a new understanding Israel. Source: Youtube/BarryWilliams

What kind of work, if any, do you do at a grassroots level in the region?

The purpose of our group is to educate and inform people in Ireland about Israel and the wider Middle East.

Much of the comment from activist groups concerns the media coverage of the conflict, why is this such a specific focus?

We feel that the media coverage, though more balanced than in previous conflicts between Israel and its enemies, is still not very partial. Establishment media in particular takes a very anti-Israel line, such as the Irish Times with skewed headlines, sensationalist and emotive photos etc.

Other mainstream media are not necessarily hostile to Israel but, in part because of their general disinterest in foreign affairs, are vulnerable to emotional manipulation and a simplistic narrative, such as the tabloids and Independent Newspapers.

Therefore, we do what we can to try and show the facts which hopefully will encourage the mainstream media into being more balanced.

We don’t want the media to be “pro-Israel” as that serves nobodies interests, we simply ask that the media is fair and refrains from using slogans or headlines that deliberately set out to sway public opinion.

It is not uncommon to see a headline such as “IDF strikes Gaza” and then three paragraphs down, to see that the strikes were in retaliation for earlier rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli civilians.

Imagine what public opinion in Ireland would be if the headlines were constantly, ‘Hamas targets Israeli civilians’? We want fairness and articles that are free of emotive language but yet seek to tell what is happening on both sides.

Can your work too often get bogged down in the ‘blame game’ or is that just a reflection of the wider conflict?

Yes, it can happen. It is very hard to have a rational debate about Israel because ‘the other side’ are so fanatically emotional and are masters at blackening Israel. They like to dominate the ‘argument space’ with emotional language and wild accusations like “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” which are good at capturing an audience and this puts the pro-Israel line on the defensive.

Terms like “genocide” in the case of an air-strike operation is an abuse of the term and an insult to people like the Rwandans, Jews and Armenians who suffered real genocide in the past.

We have to catch up on the truth so to say, but it often just descends then into a slagging match. We try to present facts and the history of the region.

We also promote Israeli music, food, alcohol, culture and of course Israeli innovation to Irish people. There is a lot more to Israel than just “conflict” and we try to show that.

What role does the Irish Government have in the conflict? What do you think it should be doing?

Ireland is supposed to be a neutral country. The Government, in fairness, is a lot more balanced than it was in previous conflicts.

During operation Cast-Lead, in the time of the FF-led government, the Department of Foreign Affairs was issuing statements every few days condemning Israel and not even mentioning Hamas.

This time the government has been more even-handed, not trying to lecture Israel, instead calling for peace and a ceasefire etc, something Israel has agreed to but Hamas refused to accept and continued to target Israeli civilians.

It would be positive though if the government actually mentioned ‘Hamas’ in its statements because by not doing so it implies there is no responsible authority in Gaza that is causing this mess in the first place.

What would be one criticism you’d have of Israel’s reaction to the recent escalation?

There is a certain lack of cohesion emerging from the Israeli cabinet, with some ministers wanting more or less action than Prime minister Netanyahu who is trying to find a balance that can keep his government and country unified in this difficult time.

It is traditional, unfortunately, that Israeli cabinet ministers speak their mind freely to the world press. There isn’t the same culture of cabinet unanimity to the outside world that we take for granted. This can give off a feeling of ‘mixed messages’ from Jerusalem.

What do you think people in Ireland are most unaware of in relation to the situation?

There is absolutely no understanding in this country of some basic facts: most people, even if not hostile to Israel, think Hamas is a sort of charity government with some strange religious ideas which rules Gaza.

People don’t know the real agenda and truth of Hamas and how ugly it is; the Irish media completely ignores the fact that rockets are frequently fired at Israel even in so-called peacetime. That between the end of the last war in 2012 and the beginning of the current one hundreds of rockets were fire at Israel from Gaza and you never read a word of this anywhere in Irish media.

450 rockets were fired at Israel since the start of this year until the beginning of Operation Protective Edge and since then a further 1,300 rockets have been fired at Israel. These rockets are fired at Israel so frequently they do not make the news, UNLESS there is an Israeli response and then the headlines will be as per usual “Israel strikes Gaza”.

We also keep hearing that only one Israeli has died. Israel has invested in sirens and shelters along with the Iron Dome missile defence unit and should not have to apologise to the world for protecting it’s civilians. On the other hand Hamas has used human shields in Gaza knowing full well that the eyes of the world are on Gaza at the moment and each civilian casualty results in more criticism of Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad aim to maximise civilian casualties so as to increase international condemnation of Israel.

Hamas can no longer be called the democratic government of Gaza. They were elected in 2006, since then there has been no elections.Hamas have killed members of Fatah (political opponents), introduced stricter Islamic law and cracked down on political and religious freedom. This is not the behaviour of a ‘democratic” government.

Also it seems in Ireland that solidarity for the Palestinians is selective, when Assad killed over 2,000 Palestinians in Syria we didn’t see any resolutions in Dublin City Council, the pro-Palestinian groups were largely silent with no vigils, petitions or protests and these Palestinian civilians were largely forgotten about. It leaves us asking one question, ‘Is Ireland really pro-Palestinian or is it just anti-Israel?’

Why do you think the issues of Israel and Palestine exercises people more than other global issues?

Well, it is very much so a clash of opposites: democracy and secular liberalism against obscurantism and theocracy; between the values of the West and values that are anti-Western.

Some on the anti-Israel side are also motivated by a visceral anti-Americanism, especially on the Left, and by a simplistic analogy between Ireland-Palestine and Britain-Israel, even though Irish people have a hell of a lot more in common with Israelis than with the Arabs.

Also, after the Cold War ended, the ‘intellectual left’ needed some new cause to give it sustenance so it fastened itself on Israel and sees in Israel everything it hates – capitalism, liberal democracy, pro-Americanism, Western culture etc.

Global opinion seems fine with Nigeria tackling Boko Haram, Kenya fighting Al-Shabaab and France going to war 2,000 miles away from home to tackle jihadists in Mali but Israel can not defend itself from the same ideological groups in its neighbourhood who are attacking it.

We also have seen during this conflict a need to recycle photos. While we all like to be green it has been well reported by the BBC and The Telegraph that many of the pictures of civilian casualties from Gaza are actually pictures of civilians in Syria and Iraq.

From you experience of dealing with people who may passionately support your side, what prevents them from becoming actively involved?

Fear. The anti-Israel campaign in this country is well organized nationally, very well-funded because they have almost daily events up and down in the country even in non-crisis times. They have members ranging from civil society leaders to intellectuals to trade union members, elected politicians, academics and leftists etc.

The more extreme members, usually young Marxist activists, are very good at intimidation. We know of public people, politicians and journalists for example who have kept quiet in recent years after being publicly pro-Israel, because they have been intimidated. Also, the anti-Israel brigade love to dominate the ‘argument space’ and street activism and can’t stand being challenged on their own turf and sometimes react with intimidation.

Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Kevin Squires and Freda Hughes answered on behalf of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Palestine Solidarity Campaigns Protests IPSC says it aims to raise awareness in Ireland of the international plight of the Palestinian People. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

What kind of work do you do at a grassroots level in the region?

The IPSC does not work at grassroots level in the Palestine-Israel region, although we are in constant contact with organisations on the ground and work closely with them to highlight their issues here at home.

Our remit is to build support for the Palestinian people’s decades-long struggle for their inalienable rights. We do this in a variety of ways, for example regularly bringing both Palestinians and Israelis to speak to Irish audiences, street information stalls, film screenings, cultural events, promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, social media work, and of course demonstrations like the ones in the past week.

We liaise and work with individuals and organisations all over the country; political parties, trade unions, community groups and NGOs. Our aim is to build the widest possible support for freedom, justice and equality for the all people in the region, which is necessary for a peaceful resolution to this conflict of unequals once and for all. Also, it’s important to remember that we take our direction from Palestinian civil society groups and act in solidarity, we don’t attempt to impose our agendas upon them.

Much of the comment from activist groups concerns the media coverage of the conflict, why is this such a specific focus?

The mainstream media remains the main way in which the majority of people get their day-to-day news. Therefore, what media outlets say is of incredible importance to how people view issues. How are stories framed? What context is presented? What viewpoints are presented? How are sources weighted? And is truth, rather than the he-said-she-said-ery of false balance, being served?

We feel that the Irish public is, with a few notable exceptions, ill served by our media. Stories are usually framed in a way that depicts Israeli violence as always being in “response” to some Palestinian act, rarely vice-versa. Stories usually quote Israeli officials extensively and often uncritically.

There is a tendency to humanise, value and empathaise with Israeli victims over Palestinian victims; I’m sure many know the names of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, but how many know the names Nadim Nawareh and Mohammed Salameh? The latter two, whose widely condemned murders by the Israeli military were caught on CCTV, were given four lines in an Irish Times World News sidebar wire report, the prison hunger strike they were protesting wasn’t even mentioned.

The three murdered Israelis were given a full-colour front page picture and story. It may not be incidental that the Irish Times’ chief Palestine-Israel correspondent is Mark Weiss, an Israeli citizen, as was David Horowitz before him. Ultimately the media – RTE, the Irish Times and Independent News & Media in particular – have the power to set agendas, and influence how people think about issues, that’s why it is such an important focal point.

What do you try to achieve with your media strategy?

All our work is aimed at raising awareness about what is going on a daily basis on the ground in the Palestine-Israel area. When we deal with the media, one of our principle aims is getting Palestinian voices, viewpoints and narratives out there.

We believe it is important that the oppressed speak for themselves. We also hope to change the discourse in relation to items mentioned above, such as framing, source weighting, context, victim weighting and ultimately get the truth out about the large and small crimes that are being perpetrated on a daily basis by the Israeli state against the people of Palestine.

One thing which we always try to highlight is that the every-day, routine, systemic and structural violence of this decades-old occupation is equally as important as the headline-grabbing massacres such as the one taking place now. The reality of everyday existence under Israeli apartheid should be vital context for any report on the region, especially ones that involves violence against the brutality of that existence.

Of course media work is only one strand of our broader campaign, and we see the combined effects of all our work in the broad support for Palestinian rights found in Irish society, in spite of how the issue is often portrayed in the media. I think people can pick out the reality easily enough.

What difficulties do you find in achieving them?

Unfortunately, mainstream media has a tendency to reflect the ideologies of power – there is lots of scholarly critical media analysis that backs such an assertion. The Irish media is no different, and certainly there can be no doubt that powerful players are backing Israel to the hilt.

The US is basically Israel’s major financial and military sponsor and shields it from sanction by the UN Security Council while the EU – of which Ireland is a part – sees Israel as virtually part of Europe and allows it access to funding programs such as Horizon 2020 and beneficial trade agreements such as Euro-Med; the EU is Israel’s biggest export market.

Therefore the default viewpoint of media outlets often reflects this, not always, and not necessarily so blatantly, but it is there nonetheless. The fact that we are a small volunteer organisation with limited resources, as opposed to a powerful state that pumps millions, if not billions, into PR strategies, courting journalists, slick media training etc. also has its effect on our ability to influence. Although, I suppose that anti-Palestinian groups and individuals regularly find fault with Irish media coverage suggests that we are having at least some, small, progressive influence.

Can your work too often get bogged down in the ‘blame game’ or is that just a reflection of the wider conflict?

We try to show the realities, the legalities and the tragedies in our work on every level. Talk of ‘blame games’ or ‘both sides’ is often a way of deflecting attention from the very basic fact that in this conflict, if you can call it that, there is a people that are occupied and oppressed and a state that occupies and oppresses them.

There is a people, the majority of whom do not even live in the territory supposedly designated as a future state, but in refugee camps in surrounding countries, denied their Right of Return to homes they were expelled from by Zionist and Israeli forces in 1947 and 1948.

There is a state with a huge, well-financed military with state of the art weaponry that can act with impunity and a few armed groups whose most advanced weapon is an unguided missile. One side has the overt backing of the world’s largest superpower and tacit support of the EU, the other doesn’t. These are not two equal sides locked in an intractable conflict; these are a colonised people struggling for their rights and a coloniser state that wants to deny these rights.

What role does the Irish Government have in the conflict? What do you think it should be doing?

Unfortunately, by refusing to implement any kind of sanction on Israel for its serial international law violations, denial of human rights, frequent war crimes and continued colonisation of Palestinian land, the Irish government is playing an enabling role in this situation. The Irish government, as part of the EU, has backed sanctions against many states, including Iran, Syria and Zimbabwe. Why not Israel?

We think the Irish government should be listening to the call from Palestinian civil society for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it end its occupation, grants equal rights to all its citizens whatever their ethno-religious background, and complies fully with its obligations under international law.

A very good start would the banning of goods from illegal Israeli settlements, calling for an arms embargo on Israel, and calling for Israel’s suspension from the Euro-Med Agreement of which “respect for human rights and democratic principles” in internal and international policies constitute “an essential element”.

Dublin City Council has just called for the latter two items, and we hope the government will pay heed. What is clear is that failure to sanction Israel has not stopped its continual attacks on Palestinians; indeed, this impunity merely emboldens it to continue such brutality. Over 7,000 Palestinians, at least 1,400 of them children, have been killed in 14 years, this must end.

What would be one criticism you’d have of Hamas’s reaction to the recent escalation?

Hamas allowed themselves to be sucked into Israel’s trap. Hamas had doggedly stuck to the 2012 ceasefire agreement, something Israeli officials themselves admit, one telling the Jerusalem Post on 30th May that “Hamas has not been behind recent rocket attacks on southern Israel”.

This despite constant Israeli violations of the 2012 ceasefire agreement, and the killings of around 80 people in the occupied territories in that time. Following three weeks of rounding up Hamas members in the West Bank, and the deaths of 9 people while ostensibly searching for the kidnapped Israeli teens, Israel began extra-judicially assassinating Hamas members in Gaza.

These provocations eventually led Hamas to launch an offensive in response, thus supposedly legitimising Israel’s latest murderous onslaught that has killed over 200 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians including at least 46 children.

What do you think people in Ireland are most unaware of in relation to the situation?

I think it could be that when Palestinians and human rights activists say that Israel is an “Apartheid state”, we are not making an analogy with South African apartheid but saying that Israeli policy towards Palestinians fits the definition of the Crime of Apartheid in international law.

While the two are similar in many respects, there are important differences too. For example, within the State of Israel, although there are dozens of laws that discriminate against them, most Palestinians can vote and be elected to parliament. But that is because within Israel Palestinian citizens are a minority of 20%. In South Africa allowing black people to vote would have seen a black majority government.

Inside Israel that is not an issue, Palestinian citizens will only ever elect 12 or so MPs, but if you look at the occupation as a whole, millions of Palestinians whose existence is controlled by Israel cannot vote in Israeli elections. And worse than that, in the occupied Palestinian territories, two distinctly different systems of law operate side by side. Illegal Israeli settlers within the West Bank live under Israeli civil law whilst Palestinians live under a system of arbitrary Israeli Military Orders. Under these Palestinians have no democratic rights at all and this is what allows the confiscation of their lands and restrictions on their rights to live where they choose and move about as they wish.

Also, if you look at Israel’s Law of Return, any Jewish person can immigrate to Israel and become a citizen regardless of if they are black, white, Asian etc. Yet no Palestinian who was forcibly expelled when the state was founded can return to their homes, and Palestinians from the West Bank who marry Israeli citizens are denied citizenship as well.

These are just two examples, there are others where the “petty apartheid” that existed in South Africa doesn’t exist in Israel, or exists in a different manner, whereas a structural, systemic apartheid that denies fundamental rights to others is common to both systems. Basically, apartheid is not necessarily an exact analogy, but it is certainly a reality.

Why do you think the issues of Israel and Palestine exercises people more than other global issues?

Well, if that assertion is true, then there are many reasons for this, not least that it is one of the oldest military occupations in living memory.

The creation of Israel itself, which saw the expulsion of over 700,000 indigenous Palestinians was extremely controversial, and became much more so after the 1967 occupation. Israel is one of the last overtly colonial states in existence.

There is also the fact that Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of three major religions. And of course, Palestinians have built a strong international movement in solidarity with their struggle for justice, just as black South Africans before them did. Many people fighting injustices at home, especially indigenous peoples, gain inspiration from the Palestinian cause – from their steadfastness, their resourcefulness and their refusal to stop fighting for their rights.

On the other side, you have the legacy of the horrific Nazi genocide of European Jews, and many Jewish people for whom Israel is part of their identity. Of course, the Holocaust was carried out by Europeans, not Palestinians, and they should not have had to pay the price for European anti-Semitism.

From your experience of dealing with people who may passionately support your side, what prevents them from becoming actively involved?

There is no one single thing, because all people are different. Though for quite a number it is simply time constraints. We are still in a recession, or at least that’s how most people we meet on a day to day basis see it, and people are struggling to make ends meet. This obviously has an effect on people’s immediate priorities – families will naturally always come first.

Many are also involved in community or other single issue campaigns that take up time and energy. Yet we know there is so much support out there for the Palestinian people because we see it in the streets; our stalls see a regular stream of people coming up and making supportive comments and signing our petitions, our informational events are usually well attended and when Israel commits particularly egregious attacks on Palestine, we see it in the size of demonstrations like the one last Saturday which the Irish Times reported 3,000 people attended.

Read: 19, including Israeli soldier, killed in Gaza overnight >

Read: Three mortar shells hit Israel, just as ceasefire starts >

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