NIFI – Irish News

NIFI weighs in – a letter in today’s Irish News by NIFI co-chair, Andrew Shaw, was submitted as follows:

Brian Feeney is correct that people in Northern Ireland are sharply divided on the Arab-Israel conflict. But he may be surprised to learn why many people here – Unionist as well as Nationalist – consider themselves to be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace.

Why pro Israel?

Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East. Don’t take my word for it. The much-respected think tank, Freedom House, ranks it far and away the most democratic nation in the region.

This is the state Brian accuses of “masquerading as a normal modern society”. I wish every state in the Middle East came close to matching Israel’s democratic structures and values. Israel boasts a free press, independent courts and effective trade union movement.

Israel is the only Jewish state on this earth. This doesn’t make it a theocracy or a state for Jews only. Its Christian and Muslim citizens enjoy full political rights and freedom of worship. While being a haven for Jewish Holocaust survivors, victims of Soviet persecution and almost a milllion refugees from Arab lands, Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian minority.

Israel is the only state which is threatened with utter annihilation by its neighbours – a fact which Brian makes light of. Invaded on numerous occasions, it is surrounded today by Hezbollah, Hamas, the Syrian regime and its Jihaddist opposition, all of which are pledged to destroy it. And then there is Iran…

In the context of today’s volatile and repressive Middle East there is nothing progressive in seeking to isolate and humiliate Israel.

And why pro-Palestinian? Because I believe in the right to national self-determination for Palestinians and want to see a Palestinian state thriving along-side Israel as part of a permanent and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Israel is only one half of one per cent of the Middle East, about the size of Wales. Yet it has made territorial compromises in the interests of peace. According to President Clinton: “Israel offered more than I expected it would or indeed I believed it should” to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Sadly Yasser Arafat walked away from the negotiating table.


There are many in Belfast who, like Brian, advocate boycotting Israel. Recent years have seen Israeli workers harassed at Castlecourt, the Israeli flag burnt at city hall, a call for a Leonard Cohen concert at the Waterfront to be called off because the Jewish singer was also performing in Tel Aviv. Does anyone seriously believe that actions like these advance the cause of peace? Or banning Israeli students from educational exchanges?

I would like to point readers to more positive ways that Northern Ireland is engaging with the
Middle East. Intercomm is sending our young people to the region to meet both Israelis and Palestinians, the East Belfast Mission is hosting Arabs and Jews to meet our politicians and church leaders, and experts here in shared and integrated education are using their expertise to assist Jewish and Arab educationalists to raise children without hate.

People have a choice. Like Brian they can demonise one side and indulge in negative and divisive boycotts. Or they can take part in the serious business of assisting dialogue and peace-building on the ground.

Andrew Shaw

Co chair Northern Ireland Friends of Israel