Steven Jaffe and Terry McCorran, co-chairs of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group, call on Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, to back initiatives to broker a peace deal in the Middle East
Last month we launched a new organisation, Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, with a meeting at Stormont. We had only three weeks to organise the event. Yet people crammed into Parliament Buildings.
There were pastors and secularists, Christians and Jews, representatives of rival political parties, academics, trade unionists and members of the public — many of whom had travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland to be there. We now know we could have filled the Great Hall many times over.
Was our meeting a knee-jerk reaction to the great sympathy that many people feel here for the Palestinians? Were people turning up to fight the conflict in Northern Ireland by alternative means?
Lord Steinberg, our president, spoke of “the longstanding links which connect Northern Ireland and Israel”. The sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was born in Belfast. In addition, thousands of Northern Irish people have visited Israel as pilgrims, more per head than from any other part of the UK. Thanks to Bible classes, many children here are as familiar with the geography of the Holy Land as they are of their own country.
For some of our supporters, Israel marks the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. The survival of the Jews over a 2,000 year exile, ingathered from the four corners of the earth, is a modern-day miracle. For others, equally significant is the fact that the Israeli state is, with all its faults, the only nation in the Middle East with a western-style democracy. It has a free media, independent courts, and an effective trades union movement, which offers freedom of worship and political rights to its Christian and Muslim minorities. It is a refugee state of Holocaust survivors and hundreds of thousands of Jews kicked out of Arab lands.
It is also the state which showed its commitment to peace by signing treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and offering Palestinian statehood to the late Yasser Arafat, only for Arafat to reject the Clinton-brokered deal and launch the second intifada. And when there was no partner for peace, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, which was to be the first step towards a two state solution. Maybe it is the sheer “chutzpah” of five million Jews flourishing against the odds, hated by the surrounding countries, threatened with obliteration by Iran, but causing the desert to bloom, developing a high tech economy, and reviving the Hebrew language as an everyday tongue.
Perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised by the turnout. The great interest here in the Middle East, has been brought into sharp focus by the visit of Gerry Adams to the region. Mr Adams met with Hamas, deemed a terrorist organisation by the USA, UK and Israel, and as a result the Israeli government decided not to meet with him.
Gerry Adams recently presided at the launch of a report by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which describes Israel in the most lurid terms as a racist state. The ICTU leadership calls for Israel to be boycotted. Unfortunately, this does not sit well with Gerry Adams's position that he respects the rights of Israelis and Palestinians and that dignity for all is the way to achieve peace.
Many people here, nationalist and unionist, appreciate that a secure and confident Israel is vital for the difficult compromises which lie ahead. By contrast, demonising Israel and calling for it to be boycotted, encourages extremism and is based on the delusion that the world's only Jewish state should be demoralised and destroyed.
In Northern Ireland we have seen Israeli workers harassed at CastleCourt, the Israeli flag burnt at City Hall, shoppers intimidated at Marks & Spencer and anti-semitic graffiti daubed on Christian places of worship.
In contrast, the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel calls for meaningful engagement with all those who are committed to a durable and fair resolution of the conflict. We wish to foster good relations between all the peoples of our countries and to further a better understanding between them. In particular, we want to see Israel's case fairly presented in the local media, to achieve a more balanced coverage of what is a complex and historic problem.
Gerry Adams has called on the international community to bring Hamas into the peace process because of its electoral mandate.
Like him, we agree that Hamas must be put to the test. The political parties in Northern Ireland signed up to the democratic and non-violent Mitchell principles. Likewise, for Hamas to be brought to the negotiating table it must commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, recognise Israel's right to exist, and sign up to existing commitments between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Mr Adams says he has come away with assurances from the Hamas leader that he is committed to peace and even that he accepts a two state solution — we would like to know whether these startling assertions can be backed up in practical terms.
We welcome Gerry Adams's call for an end to the missile attacks on Israel. He must surely know that if there were no attacks on Israel then Israel would not have launched its attack on Hamas, with its terrible consequences for the people of Gaza.
The 5,500 missile attacks on Israel (still ongoing despite the recent cease-fire), the fact that over a million Israelis live within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter, is not acceptable.
But if he sits down with the leader of Hamas, Gerry Adams must also call for Hamas to scrap its anti-semitic charter. Article 7 of the Hamas charter states that the day of justice for Muslims will arrive when every last Jew has been killed. Hamas gives effect to this aspiration by suicide bombs and missiles fired randomly into civilian areas. It rejects all peace processes and says Islamic struggle will eventually obliterate Israel. Can Mr Adams really be surprised that Israel, of all nations, won't speak to an adversary which is committed to genocide against it?