Ireland and the Palestine question 1948–2004

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Ireland and the Palestine question 1948–2004 1Ireland and the Palestine question 1948–2004
Rory Miller
(Irish Academic Press)
€45 hardback ISBN 07165 28142
€25 paperback ISBN 07165 33499Rory Miller begins his story not in 1948 but in 1937, when Eamonn de Valera told the League of Nations that the Palestine question should not be solved by partition, ‘the cruelest wrong that could be done to any people’. Ten years later, when that wrong had been inflicted on the Palestinian Arabs, the reaction in Ireland was predictably hostile.
In the early years of the Israeli state Ireland’s main preoccupation was with guaranteeing free access to the holy places. Our UN accession in 1955 was welcomed by the Arab world, ‘aware of Ireland’s anti-colonial credentials and its policy of neutrality’. As minister for external affairs from 1957, Frank Aiken focused on the question of Palestinian refugees, Ireland becoming a generous contributor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. After the 1967 war, Aiken called for ‘the withdrawal of Israeli forces to 4 June lines’, asserting that Israel ‘ha[d] no right whatever to annex the territory of [its] neighbours’. He believed ‘that a solution to the refugee crisis was a necessary prerequisite to (rather than a welcome consequence of) a general solution to the problem’.
Significantly, Irish newspapers unanimously condemned Aiken’s interventions. The Evening Herald wondered whether Aiken ‘would be just as anxious to hand back the Hill of Tara if it had been used to shell Meath farmers’ (sic). But as Israel remained ruthlessly intransigent on the issue of Palestinian refugees, attitudes changed. By 1970 the Irish Independent was calling Israel ‘stiff-necked’ and the Irish Times was demanding ‘justice for the Palestinian refugees’.
The year 1980 saw the Bahrain Declaration, in which foreign minister Brian Lenihan recognised ‘the role of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) in representing the Palestinian people’ and called again for ‘the withdrawal of Israel from all territory occupied since the 1967 conflict’. This became the basis of the European Community’s Venice Declaration later that year, thus confirming Lenihan’s role as a major architect of ostensible Community policy on the Palestine question. Israel was predictably enraged.
In the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords Israel acquired its long-coveted residential embassy in Dublin, although Ireland still postponed appointing an ambassador to Tel Aviv. Relations were soured again by the 1996 massacre of civilians at Qana, in Lebanon, when Michael McDowell led condemnation of Israel while David Norris blamed Hizbollah!
Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram Al-Sharif in September 2000, Ireland has consistently outdone its European Union partners in defending Palestinian rights at a rhetorical level, while voting with the rest of them at the United Nations. In July 2004 Ireland’s individual submission to the International Court of Justice on the question of Israel’s separation wall forcefully favoured the Palestinian position, yet Ireland also signed up to the much weaker collective EU submission.
This account of Ireland’s relationship with Israel/Palestine is informative and intriguing, if rather sloppily edited and indexed. However, Miller’s description and interpretation of historical events in the Middle East follows the old-fashioned Zionist party line to the letter. Let us look more closely at some of his more significant omissions and distortions. He consistently decries the Palestinians for having spurned the 1947 UN Partition plan, but fails to spell out the lopsided figures involved: 56 per cent of Palestine’s territory was allotted to Jews, who constituted only 33 per cent of the population and owned less than 7 per cent of the land.
Miller claims that the refugee problem ensued after ‘the invasion of Israel by the combined [Arab] armies on 15 May 1948’ and Israel’s subsequent victory, but omits to mention that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs had already begun long before the invasion took place. The most he concedes is that ‘by April 1948 . . . over 100,000 Palestinian Arabs . . . had fled to the surrounding Arab states’, but he advances no opinion as to why this happened.
Concerning United Nations Security Council resolution 242, he claims as ‘fact’ the pedantic allegation—long since discarded by all but the most diehard Likudniks—that ‘the absence of the definite article “the” from the official English drafting of the resolution was an acknowledgment . . . that . . . Israel would not have to return to borders as they existed before the war’. He fails to mention that 242 emphasises ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force’, or that subsequent resolutions (e.g. UN General Assembly resolution 38/180) unambiguously demand ‘withdrawal by Israel from all the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem’. This selective allegiance to UN resolutions is characteristic of Israel’s defenders.
Miller asserts that ‘The war occurred because Israel (correctly) believed that the various Arab states . . . were preparing to mount a final offensive against the Jewish state’. This contention has long since been undermined. He fails to cite such statements as this by Menachem Begin: ‘In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.’
It is not necessary to share this reviewer’s belief that Miller is drastically wrong about these issues in order to disparage his omission of all reference to those historians—including the Israeli ‘new historians’—who contradict his analysis. But most unpardonable of all is his attempt to exculpate Israel for the Sabra and Chatila massacres in 1982: these, he tells us, ‘were carried out by Lebanese Christians rather than the Israeli army’. He refers to Ariel Sharon’s ‘alleged role in the massacre while he was Israeli Minister of Defence’ (my emphasis). There is no mention of Israel’s official Kahan Commission of February 1983, which found that (in its own words) ‘Israel had indirect responsibility for the massacre’. Sharon was found ‘responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the [Christian] Phalangists into the camps as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed’, and was forced to resign.
Miller’s book ends with the customary sterile demonisation of Arafat, and the claim that Ireland’s supposed loyalty to him ‘threatens to tarnish Ireland’s reputation among a younger generation of Palestinian leaders’. He should be told that such leaders have long since given up on Ireland, because of our abandonment of an independent foreign policy within the context of what is perceived as growing EU support for Israel.
Raymond Deane

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