It all depends where you live. That was the geography of Israel's propaganda, designed to demonstrate that we softie liberals in our secure Western homes — don't realise the horror of 12 (now 20) Israeli deaths in 10 years and the trauma of living near Gaza. Forget the 600 Palestinian dead. Being on both sides of the Atlantic recently has been a starkly repetitive experience.
Here's how it goes. I was in Toronto when I opened the right-wing National Post and found Lorne Gunter trying to explain what it felt like to come under Palestinian rocket attack. “Suppose you lived in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills,” writes Gunter, “and people from the suburb of Scarborough were firing as many as 100 rockets a day into your yard, your kid's school, the strip mall down the street and your dentist's office....” It just so happens that the people of Scarborough are underprivileged, often new immigrants — many from Afghanistan — while the people of Don Mills are largely middle-class with a fair number of Muslims. Nothing like attacking Canada's multicultural society to show how Israel is justified in smashing back at the Palestinians.
In the French-language newspaper La Presse two days later, there's an article signed by 16 pro-Israeli writers, economists and academics: “Imagine for a moment that the children of Longueuil live day and night in terror, that businesses, shops, hospitals, schools are the targets of terrorists located in Brossard.” Longueuil is a community of blacks and Muslim immigrants, Afghans, Iranians. But who are the “terrorists” in Brossard?
Two days later and I am in Dublin. I open The Irish Times to find a letter from the local Israeli ambassador, trying to explain what it feels like to come under Palestinian rocket attack. “What would you do,” Zion Evrony asks readers, “if Dublin were subjected to a bombardment of 8,000 rockets and mortars....” I'm waiting for the same writers to ask how we'd feel if we lived in Don Mills or Brossard or Dublin and came under sustained attack from supersonic Israeli aircraft and Merkava tanks.
In Ireland, Kevin Myers justifies the bloodbath thus: “The death toll from Gaza is, of course, shocking, dreadful, unspeakable,” he mourned. “Though it does not compare with the death toll amongst Israelis if Hamas had its way.” Get it? The massacre in Gaza is justified because Hamas would have done the same if they could.
It took Fintan O'Toole of the The Irish Times's to speak the unspeakable. “When does the mandate of victimhood expire?” he asked. “At what point does the Nazi genocide of Europe's Jews cease to excuse the state of Israel from the demands of international law and of common humanity?”
While I was giving the Tip O'Neill lecture in Derry someone asked if the Good Friday agreement contained lessons for the Middle East. I suggested that local peace agreements didn't travel well and that John Hume’s idea that it was all about compromise didn't work since the seizure of Arab land in the West Bank had more in common with the 17th-century Irish Catholic dispossession than sectarianism in Belfast.
What I do suspect is that the near civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has a lot in common with the division between the Irish Free State and anti-treaty forces that led to the 1922-3 Irish civil war; that Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel — and the enemies of Michael Collins who refused to recognise the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the border with Northern Ireland — are tragedies that have a lot in common; Israel playing the role of Britain, urging the pro-treaty men (Mahmoud Abbas) to destroy the anti-treaty men (Hamas).
I ended the week in one of those BBC discussions in which a guy from The Jerusalem Post, a man from al-Jazeera, a British academic and Fisk danced the usual steps around the catastrophe. I said we should be on the side of those who suffer; if we were reporting the 18th-century slave trade we wouldn't give equal time to the slave ship captain in our dispatches. If we were reporting the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, we wouldn't give equal time to the SS spokesman; at which point a journalist from the Jewish Telegraph in Prague responded that “the IDF are not Hitler”. Of course not. Who said they were?