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Analysis
Last Updated: 09/16/2003
You can't make a deal with the dead
Kevin Toolis

You cannot negotiate with dead men. MI6 and, eventually, the British government recognised that a political struggle requires a political solution. However brutal the IRA's day-to-day terrorism, a strong, coherent republican leadership was in the strategic interest of the British state.

That fundamental insight still appears to be lacking in the Middle East conflict. If a peace process is serious, each side must accept the other as they find it rather than remould their enemies into a more compliant state by assassination and political diktat.


For a walking dead man, Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab was unimpressed by the assassins who would one day come for him. "I am not afraid," he said as we sat drinking tea in his Gaza City home. "If the Israelis want to kill me, they will. We live in war, but the Palestinians are tough enough to confront the huge power facing them. We are not afraid to die." In terms of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Shanab was a pragmatist, credited with having helped to broker the seven-week Palestinian ceasefire. His conversation was peppered with hints that Hamas' rejectionism towards the state of Israel was tradable for withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

Shanab met his predicted end under a hail of Israeli rocket fire two weeks ago in Gaza City. His death was the 138th "targeted killing" of Palestinian militants by the Israeli military since 2000. Since Shanab's immolation, Israel has stepped up the killing game against Hamas, culminating in the failed strike against the paraplegic spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, last weekend. The total is now around 150 and rising.

But then so is the overall casualty count: 2,600 Palestinians and 840 Israelis. Hamas appears undeterred by the attrition campaign against its leadership. The materials for suicide vest bombs come cheap, around £30, and there is an endless army of Palestinian volunteers to wear them. In classic counter-insurgency warfare terms, the Israeli level of casualties, one in four, remains unsustainably high.

And as the lessons of Ireland show, Israel's counter-terrorist strategy against Hamas's political leadership is pointless and counter-productive. Like many ageing warriors, Ariel Sharon is caught up in an old war; he is re-enacting his own 1970s colonial-style pacification of Gaza and, as he notes proudly in his autobiography, the "killing of 104 terrorists" in seven months.

Sharon fails to see that he is no longer fighting isolated cells. Through its clinics, universities and mosques, Hamas has enmeshed itself into the hearts and minds of up to 30% of the Palestinian population. Hamas and the political aspirations it represents will not be destroyed by killing Sheikh Yassin. In Ulster, the British army could have killed the entire IRA leadership in one afternoon. IRA leader Martin McGuinness lived openly for 30 years in the Bogside district of Derry, his house within sniper range of the main RUC barracks. McGuinness drove an ordinary car and eschewed bodyguards. The IRA army council, on which McGuinness served, twice tried to decapitate the British cabinet, at Brighton in 1984 and in Downing Street in 1991. But assassinating McGuinness would not have destroyed violent Irish republicanism or weakened the Provisional IRA.

Instead, Britain's secret state sought to foster a relationship with McGuinness. He was the conduit for the initial peace proposals from MI6's Michael Oatley that eventually flowered into the 1998 Good Friday agreement. These secret McGuinness-Oatley discussions went on even as the IRA's London bombs went off.

You cannot negotiate with dead men. MI6 and, eventually, the British government recognised that a political struggle requires a political solution. However brutal the IRA's day-to-day terrorism, a strong, coherent republican leadership was in the strategic interest of the British state.

That fundamental insight still appears to be lacking in the Middle East conflict. If a peace process is serious, each side must accept the other as they find it rather than remould their enemies into a more compliant state by assassination and political diktat.

Is Israel a safer place now that Ismail Abu Shanab is dead? Is Hamas now more likely to accept the Israeli point of view? Does Sharon think there are no other Palestinian leaders to replace him?

Sharon, with his helicopter gunships, is no more able to remove Hamas' political legitimacy among the Palestinians than those EU foreign ministers in Italy who, bowing to US pressure, vainly declared Hamas a terrorist entity at the weekend and sought to blacklist every charity deemed to be affiliated to the Islamist organisation.

Like Sharon's "war on terror", the EU ban on Hamas is an act of futility. Who will turn away the sick child from a EU-funded clinic because her family attends a Hamas mosque? Who will sack the Palestinian teacher because they have a poster of Sheikh Yassin at home? Who from the EU will police Palestinian minds?

The deaths of 3,500 people during Ireland's Troubles never changed the underlying conflict; they were just a crude calculus of conflict. The Troubles stopped only when the political leadership on both sides negotiated a solution.

In the coming months, the same worthless mortal calculus will be enacted again among the innocent in the Middle East; on buses in Jerusalem and on Palestinian streets. The blood will never stop until it is accepted that there can be no military solution to the conflict.



This article is reprinted with permission of Kevin Toolis. He is author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul

He can be contacted at kevintoolis@hotmail.com

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