Ukraine and Gaza are proof we need politics of non-violence more than ever

This article was first published on Steven Agnew’s Belfast Telegraph Debate NI site on 23 July, but was written before the latest escalation of the violence in Gaza. See the addendum below for an update from Maurice Macartney.

ONE of the four fundamental principles of the Green Party in Northern Ireland is ‘non-violence and peace’.

Recent atrocities in Ukraine and Gaza show that we need a vigorous and active politics of non-violence more than ever.

Peace is not just the absence of violence; it is a willingness to resolve conflict in a constructive manner with a spirit of good will and respect. By contrast, the politics of violence perpetuates itself by creating a spirit of suspicion, hostility and contempt.
If peace is our goal then violence can rarely be justified, as it only serves to cement the very divisions that cause conflict.

When faced with unbearable situations like Gaza, or the downed airline in Ukraine, we tend to respond by seeking someone to blame. This often results in grouping of individuals on the basis of religion, ethnicity or nationality – or more simply, ‘us’ and ‘them’ – to the point where acts of mindless thuggery, such as the recent attacks on a Belfast Synagogue, become possible.

The ambition of peace and resolution is quickly reduced to a simple mentality of winning or of asserting ‘right’. If your side is right then any action can be justified especially if it is deemed necessary to win. Of course both sides will believe they are ‘right’ and therefore conflict persists.

Such oversimplifications are invariably wrong, precisely because they are oversimplifications; and they are almost certain to perpetuate and deepen, rather than help resolve, the conflict in question.

Long before he became Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin spoke of defending the interests of ‘the Russian people as a great nation’. It is in the name of the ‘responsibility to protect’ the Russian ‘people’ that Putin seems to have decided to annex Crimea, and is now trying to exonerate the pro-Russian militia in Ukraine.

It is a good example of the way reading conflict through the lens of national or other group identities obscures, rather than clarifies, issues of violence. Decisions tend to be made, and actions ‘justified’, on the basis of which ‘side’ we support, and which ‘side’ we blame.
This is not the World Cup and we are not playing football. There can be no winners in war and death and suffering is no trophy.

While history is littered with examples of politicians playing games with people’s lives, this does not have to be the story of our future. Different choices can and should be made.
We cannot justify acts of violence in the name of ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ or any other kind of ‘denomination’. We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility by blaming the other like the boy in the schoolyard who, caught beating another, says ‘but he hit me first’.
Violence is the true enemy, and must be opposed regardless of which ‘side’ it emanates from.

We must each take responsibility for our own actions; stand down the violence of our own ‘side’, and indeed learn to stop thinking in terms of ‘sides’ at all. Rather, we must come together, for all our differences, not to try to defeat our ‘enemies’, but to solve the problems themselves.

In the words of the remarkable Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor who lost his three daughters to an Israeli army shell, conflict ‘is the result of fear, mistrust and suspicion. We need to smash these artificial barriers we have created in our minds because nothing will change until we change what is in our own hearts, minds and souls’.

Since this article was written some two weeks ago, the violence in Gaza has continued to escalate. But the message in the article is as clear and relevant as ever.

In Northern Ireland there are those who appear to have taken the tragedy in Gaza as another opportunity to rehearse our own divisions into two ‘sides’. We should rather put our own divisions on hold, and together call for an immediate and lasting ceasefire, followed by genuine talks on changing the conditions of the conflict. Bombing civilians, children amongst them, is wrong. It should be our priority to end that, whether the bombs are from Israel or Gaza. Today, Wednesday 30 July, we learned that a school being used by the UN as a refugee camp had come under fire from the Israeli military, killing at least 15 of the civilians who had fled there, mostly children and women. While the firing of rockets by Hamas into random civilian areas is to be condemned without qualification, such attacks on schools, hospitals and other civilian areas by Israeli forces can in no way be justified by the argument that Hamas are somehow ‘to blame’. Decision makers cannot evade their own responsibility by blaming the other.

It should hardly need to be pointed out that condemning the disproportionate use of force by Israel does not automatically make you ‘pro-Hamas’, but this either/or thinking is precisely what happens when we view the conflict between Israel and Palestine through our own local Northern Irish eyes.

The Israeli leadership must recognise that they have a duty to protect civilians whether they are in Israel or in Gaza. In the name of humanity, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership alike must stop the violence now – unilaterally if necessary – and initiate serious, comprehensive talks on a long term solution to the conflict.

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