Ireland and Palestine

By Jeff Klein

The Irish know something about colonialism.

Long before there was a British Empire on which “the sun never set,” Ireland was the testing ground for English conquest and confiscating land from the natives. Modern day European settler colonialism had its start in medieval Ireland.

It is understandable, then, that the Irish are especially sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Both people share a common history of victimization by the British.

In 1917 British Foreign Minister Sir Arthur Balfour issued his “declaration” promising Palestine – then part of the Ottoman Empire, and with a population of Muslim and Christian Arabs – to the European-based Zionist movement. Ireland itself was at that time waging a protracted struggle for independence from Britain. The same Arthur Balfour, called “Bloody Balfour” by the Irish, had previously served as the British Chief Secretary for Ireland, where he worked ruthlessly to maintain British colonial rule. It took decades longer to achieve the goal of a free Irish Republic.

Under British rule in Palestine, veterans of the notoriously brutal colonial police known as the “Black and Tans” were recruited to help repress the local movement for independence, just as they had earlier tried to do in Ireland.

So, it was no surprise that following Israel’s recent bombing of Gaza, which killed more than 250, including at least 66 children, the Irish parliament, the Dáil, on May 26 unanimously passed a motion condemning Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories as “de facto annexation.”

John Brady, Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, declared that the motion was historic: “Ireland is the first country to state that. We need to use that mandate to hold Israel to account. . .  I hope,” he said, “that other countries now will follow the lead,” adding that “there now needs to be consequences … on Israel to ensure that they cannot continue to act with perceived impunity for the human rights abuses on the Palestinian people.”  Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of the British and Irish trade union Unite, tweeted that the motion was a “shining light… Ireland in solidarity, standing against occupation & oppression.”

Locally, in Massachusetts, Irish-Americans also empathize with the Palestinians. After the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza, Brewster resident John Bangert got national attention when he challenged Senator Elizabeth Warren at a Cape Cod town hall over her one-sided support for Israel’s actions and more $billions in US military aid to Israel. “We are disagreeing with Israel using their guns against innocents. It’s true in Ferguson, Missouri, and it’s true in Israel,” said Bangert.

John Bangert’s brother Joe, a Vietnam veteran active with Vets for Peace also lives on the Cape. With his father’s support, Joe’s Irish son Fiachra Ó Luain took part in a small convoy of boats attempting unsuccessfully to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010. The Israelis violently boarded the vessels in international waters, killing 9 passengers and arresting the remainder, including Fiachra.

I met Fiachra sometime later and shared with him my own experience with a US group bringing medical supplies to Gaza via Egypt in 2009. We went together to the State House to meet then Rep. Marty Walsh and South Boston Sen. Jack Hart, both of whom I knew from my days in the labor movement. They expressed sympathy and understanding but didn’t see what they could do to help.

Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch also traveled to Gaza after the 2008-9 Israeli bombing. There he visited with Palestinian doctors at the Al Quds Medical Center and met with relief agencies, including Catholic Relief Services. He reported that: “Currently, there are about 1.5 million people living in Gaza, an area of about 20 square miles. Many of these families with young children have no running water, no working sanitation system and no electricity. Because there are tight restrictions on basic services and the right to travel, this is really a humanitarian crisis.”

When I spoke with Lynch later, he said he was appalled by the Israeli bombing of the US-financed American International School in Gaza, whose collapsed ruins I had also seen first-hand when I visited the site.

Now here in 2021 we are in the days following the fourth or fifth major Israeli attack on Gaza, with no peace and no end in sight for the brutal Israeli siege imposed on the 2 million people crowded into the tiny enclave. Conditions there are, if anything, even worse than a decade before, with thousands left homeless and in conditions the UN calls “dire.” More than 400,000 people are without access to safe potable water. In the West Bank, 3.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation with no rights at all.

The Irish had to struggle for centuries before they achieved independence. Let’s hope that the Palestinians don’t have to wait that long. Meanwhile, the US continues to supply Israel with $3.8 Billion of our tax dollars every year in military aid. And sadly the Israeli bombs that fell on Gaza last month were all “Made in the USA.”

Jeff Klein, a MAPA board member, is a retired local union president who lives in Dorchester and has travelled to Palestine many times and who  writes about Middle East issues.