Belfast/Jerusalem: Travelling with Ex-Combatant Community Leaders in Israel/ Palestine

The Guys

In November 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish terrorist determined to carry out God’s will, but really he was just playing God. His having won at that game, the Oslo Peace Accords were like the face of a good friend receding from your car’s side-view mirror, where already things are smaller than they appear.

Three weeks later then-U.S. President Bill Clinton appointed Senator George Mitchell to serve as special advisor to Northern Ireland. The Mitchell Report, released on Jan. 24, 1996, called for a phasing out of paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland and all-party elections, and set February 1996 as the target date to open all-party peace negotiations. The Good Friday Peace Agreement signed in April 1998; outlined a process for the future decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. People would feel safe without guns when enough trust was being built through negotiation.1 Mitchell put it this way: “… what is needed is a decommissioning of mindsets.” And so it came to pass:

Statement by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) on Decommissioning, (27 June 2009)

The leadership of the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando today confirms it has completed the process of rendering ordnance totally, and irreversibly, beyond use.

This process was initiated in autumn 2008 when the Combined Loyalist Military Command was reconvened to address the outstanding issue of Loyalist military material. As a result of those discussions, all constituent parts agreed to set in place the internal arrangements necessary to begin the disarmament process.

Across every operational area in Northern Ireland and in all regions of Great Britain; in conjunction with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning; in the presence of independent international witnesses and consistent with the modalities and schemes agreed upon by our interlocutor; the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando have now concluded that process….

With each new settlement built in the West Bank threatening any possibility of a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I waxed nostalgic for those hopeful days of the Oslo Peace Accords; making me all the more curious to figure out how multiple parties in Northern Ireland, settled a conflict that raged since the 11th century. How do you make peace? How do ex-combatants become peacemakers?

In my quest for answers, in 2012, I traveled to Jerusalem with 11 ex-paramilitary Loyalist leaders2 from Northern Ireland. These ex-combatants were leading their communities in rebuilding civic infrastructures that had collapsed in the years of “The Troubles.”

I embarked on this trip as an embedded trauma therapist; to support these men on their journey, and to learn from them. In preparation for the trip, I watched a documentary produced by BBC journalist Peter Taylor. He interviews Loyalist prisoners who were freed under the Good Friday Agreement. Taylor pokes and prods to get the why behind the violence and destruction wreaked by the Loyalist Paramilitary organizations. Billy Mitchell, one of the leaders of the Ulster Volunteer Force, responds:

Someone didn’t fly over Northern Ireland and drop some sort of loony gas; and suddenly people woke up one morning as killers. We didn’t go to bed one night as ordinary family men and wake up as killers. Conditions were created in this country whereby people have done things they shouldn’t have done.

Today, as I look back on that trip, it is hard for me to believe that The Guys had only decommissioned their arms three years before I met them. It’s hard for me to imagine them schlepping around an arsenal; after all, when I met them at the airport, they lugged travel bags just like any other tourist flying out of town.

The De-Commissioning of Narrative

The aspiring potted palm tree was a step beyond the souvenir shops marking the boundaries of Jerusalem’s Olive Tree Hotel. I worried The Guys would dehydrate as they finished up their cigarettes before boarding the tour bus. Ainsworth lingered outside, clean cut, freshly shaven. Even in their casual clothing you could see that they were military men: disciplined, alert, acutely attuned to their surroundings and to one another.

What was it like to be in Jerusalem for the first time, and what would they think of Danny Tirza? Col. Danny Tirza was the architect of Israel’s largest infrastructure project: a 750-kilometer Separation Barrier. In parts a fence, in others a concrete wall: a scar, a gash in the landscape.

“Tied one on there last night, did ya’?,” they riffed, with a poke and a tousle as Bowlby made his way to fill the empty seat in the back. But the joking stopped as we waded through a current of chiseled Jerusalem stone and the bus untangled the knotted ascent to Mount Zion. It was as if some invisible authority had called for a moment of silence. I watched them gazing out the windows and wondered if they were thinking about Jesus.

The tour bus lunged toward the precarious hillside bus stop in front of the Mount Zion Hotel, and Tirza hoisted himself straight to the microphone with a magnanimous smile. His tone was factual and hypnotic as he explained how the plans for the Separation Barrier emerged in response to a string of Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel.

“First I’ll give you the Arab narrative, then I’ll give you the Israeli one.”

But why? I cringed. Why did it have to be Danny Tirza? The very first thing on Day 1 of the Northern Irish Study Tour of Israel/Palestine?

And now, in addition to taking away their land, their access to family and work, Danny Tirza was going to take ownership of the Palestinian narrative? How would I have any chance of engaging The Guys in the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian predicament if this is what would set the tone for our entire trip?

“Why wasn’t the fence built along the ‘Green Line’ (which demarcates the line between Israel and the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War)? From a security perspective, mountains dominate valleys. To provide security, Israel must control the high ground in order to dominate the area and not have others dominate us. The Green Line leaves Israel in a fragile security situation.”

We drove to a far corner of the Gilo neighborhood, which Tirza forgot to mention was built on land that Israel unilaterally annexed in 1980.

Tirza leads The Guys off the bus to a strategic vantage point. It occurred to me that these were military men talking to a fellow military man. First day in a very foreign country — the familiarity must have been comforting. Bowlby moved up from the back of the bus and turned toward me:

“Are you coming?”

“Not right now,” I said. I knew I should, after all, one goal of the trip was for The Guys to have exposure to all views of the Israel/Palestine conflict. But I just couldn’t bear it; I already knew what he was going to say. I rode off with the bus driver to get some water for everyone; at the very least I could prevent dehydration.

We rode back toward the center of town, and Tirza began to wrap things up: “Well, I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today….”

Ainsworth stood up from his seat, and I noticed how steadily he held himself on a bus that swayed precipitously: With a patient smile, he remarked how gracious Tirza had been, how edifying the tour was, and how actually seeing the facts on the ground elucidated the strategic considerations the Israeli Army had to make. As Ainsworth spoke, I realized that at one time he must have been a commander of sorts and that he had deliberately been chosen to represent us in this parting speech:

“But if I might…offer an insight from our experience?” Ainsworth tilted his head, gauging Tirza’s apprehensive-willingness for him to proceed. Gene handed Tirza a keychain. “We have found, from our experience, that sometimes it is good to make concessions as a good-faith measure. Even if it seems to contradict military logic.-we find that good faith concessions can carry you a long way on the road to peace.”

What was Tirza thinking when he got off the bus, jiggling the keychain imprinted with the Titanic logo?

I knew from the outset that Protestants identify with Israel, while Catholics identify with the Palestinians.3

Catholics have tended to imagine themselves as the downtrodden Palestinians, still suffering under partition and foreign occupation. And Protestants, in response, have aligned with Israel, imagining themselves as having an ancient claim to the land that is being denied by the activity of murderous terrorists.

The Israel/Palestine conflict was not just a mirror of how difficult it is to make peace; it reminded The Guys how hard they worked, and how far they’ve come. They could see the common experience, as well as the common obstacles.

I had no doubt that Ainsworth’s presentation was an unprecedented veering from Tirza’s Separation Barrier script. I, for one, had not anticipated it. I turned to Ainsworth grinning with pleasure and declared: “I love you.”

Ainsworth looked at me for a moment, and then out the window of the bus, and said: “Don’t worry, Lisa, we know what it’s like to have someone usurp your narrative.”

“Really,” I said.

As he nodded his head with subtle affirmation, I realized that when I had boarded the bus that morning, I had violated my own cardinal rule; assuming that I had things all figured out. I knew exactly what Tirza would say, and I was sure The Guys would buy it, hook-line-and-sinker.

As Tirza walked off toward the Mount Zion Hotel, I read a poem by Yehuda Amichai to The Guys:

    An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
    And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
    An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
    Both in their temporary failure.
    Our two voices met above
    The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
    Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
    To get caught in the wheels
    Of the “Had Gadya” machine.

I thought about their journey from military leadership to community organizing. They had gone through a process of Transformational Justice and Adaptive Leadership. I wanted to know everything at once — how does this happen? What was it like? These men were helping me to feel that maybe, just maybe, if I listened carefully enough, and learned from them — I might figure out how my country’s failure at peace might be transcended.

Out of the Shadows4

That trip never really ended for me; it was the beginning of my quest to find out — nuts and bolts — how peace is really made after centuries of strife? Last June (2016) I asked George Mitchell, who said:

[…] the British and Irish governments had conducted a review of prior negotiations and tried to determine why they didn’t succeed, and one of the principal conclusions that was conveyed to me was that the prior negotiations included only the so-called constitutional parties, that is, the parties without affiliations to their military’s- so effectively they were trying to end the war by refusing to talk to the people who were fighting the war; they concluded that one other general policy one might have in this case is we could not end the war unless you bring in the people who are fighting and that really was the first mandate I received.

Mitchell added:

The British government had adopted a policy of prior decommissioning that is [unless] the paramilitary said they would give up their arms before they could enter the [talks]. I and my two colleagues General John de Chastelain and Prime Minster [Anthony] Farrar-Hockley conducted a review and privately everybody on all sides told us that would never work- that they are not going to do it on either side- and you have to find a way to get them into the talks in a way that will not force the constitutional parties to walk out. That was our report on decommissioning and we put enough into it that enabled the governments to organize the talks really on that basis. So I think all governments have announced policies and all government have the common sense to recognize that there may be occasions in which you can’t pursue the policy strictly.

As I listened to Mitchell’s answer, I thought about The Guys and their desire to step out of the shadows; to be recognized for their role in a peace process — that would never have been able to proceed without them. In my mind both the senator and The Guys, succeeded in their quest for peace because of their determination, and because of their refusal to be distracted by posturing, petty grievances, or political one-upmanship, Knowing that lives were at stake, they kept their eyes solidly on the prize. When I asked Mitchell about UVF members’ contribution to the GFA, he said:

Of course people and organizations change over time. The loyalists groups, the two leaders, David Ervine and Gary McMichael, I felt, made complete contributions to the process … they had been through an enormous conflict themselves. Gary’s father had been killed in the conflict where he had been a leader; David Ervine himself of course had committed violent acts and was in prison for a period of time, and they understood the harsh effect that the conflict had on the people they were representing. They were basically the people fighting the war … they were polite and they were positive and made impressive contributions.

We can never measure the true impact of trauma on people, neighborhoods, or countries. There is a temptation to weigh one pain against the next, to decipher which memory or story entitles us to lose faith or seek revenge.

Since Rabin’s murder, I’d felt as though my country was like a war-worn amputee; hope was the limb we had lost. But The Guys took me beyond the stories of violence and victimization, toward narratives of healing. My life’s trauma work brought me to that intersection of conflict zones, where grassroots movements in both Israel/Palestine and Northern Ireland hold examples of positive change that provide distilled wisdom that can dramatically reshape how we interpret violence and achieve resolution. And so I remain — despite the bombings, the misguided policies, the raging parliamentarians — instilled with hope.

1“To Hell with the future, let’s get on with the past.” George Mitchell in Northern Ireland ©2001,2008 Harvard Business School Daniel Curran and James Sebenius Page 11
2For security reasons and for the sake of confidentiality we came to refer to these men simply as The Guys.
3Despite the murals, Belfast is not Bethlehem with rain; Giles Fraser, The Guardian, Northern Ireland. April 28, 2016
4Historically, The Guys role in the continuation of the conflict has been well documented resulting in a stereotypical portrayal by the media and others. Whilst at times this may be justifiable, their positive contribution within Protestant working-class communities in helping to sustain this new political dispensation is rarely documented. However, in attempting to ‘emerge from the shadows’ to contribute positively to civic society; the opportunity through The ACT Initiative now exists to transform former combatants into active citizens.