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Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 180: June 2010

Nonviolent action, provocation and retaliation

The recent attack by the Israeli state military on the Free Gaza flotilla is a tragedy for those killed and injured but it is also a case study of how states, and other major players on the world scene, attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Blaming victims for their response to a violent and illegal act is a classic example of an attempt to justify aggression after the fact. If the Israeli forces acted in the same way in the waters off Somalia they would be simply branded as pirates, though as one legal expert has said, since it was an action by state armed forces it was actually ‘illegal warfare’.

We should be proud of the Irish role in the flotilla (see NN 178 news section, lead item), and of the Irish women and men who have been part of it, five or so with the first part of the flotilla and five on the MV Rachel Corrie. Cement and wheelchairs are clearly humanitarian aid and Israel’s stranglehold on Gazan redevelopment is appalling. The fact that the MV Rachel Corrie was delayed behind the other boats meant that the media spotlight continued much longer.

Yes, it is quite possible that despite nonviolent preparation some on board the Mavi Marmara attacked by Israeli forces in international waters did, unwisely, attempt to defend themselves and their ship with whatever came to hand but clearly insofar as this happened it was not a prepared military response, and there is no evidence of military weapons being used by those on the ship (Israel would have presented such evidence if it had any); and for Israeli commandoes to attack in the middle of the night was a disaster waiting to happen. Any response from extremely frightened passengers cannot be used to justify the Israeli action which was the cause of such a response (and if it was Israeli forces who were the victim of such an attack then the power of the military response would have been overwhelming). The overall aim of the flotilla was to, nonviolently, break the strangling blockade which Israel enforces over Gaza, a blockade which is both immoral and illegal and yet ’the West’ does nothing to push Israel to remove it.

Provoking violent reaction to justify repression has been a key part of the response of powerholders for aeons, sometimes through direct assaults, sometimes through agents provocateurs. In response to, or as an excuse arising from, a small and relatively insignificant threat from Gaza, Israel holds a whole people hostage, apart altogether from denying statehood and economic development to Palestinians. The international guilt over allowing the Holocaust/Shoah to happen, and such factors as right-wing Christian support for Israel – most especially in the USA – means Israel frequently gets away with the indefensible. It is wrong to demonise Israel – and there are many Israeli people and activists who oppose Israeli colonialism in Gaza and the West Bank - but it is right that it should be held accountable. The idea, as supported by the USA, that Israel should conduct its own investigation is truly ludicrous.

The media clearly need lessons in distinguishing between, and defining, terms like ‘force’ and ‘violence’. RTE (website) stated “Israeli forces …… intercepted and seized control of their vessel, the MV Rachel Corrie, without the use of force”. This is a ridiculous use of language. Clearly there was both force and the threat of violence involved. Those on board the Rachel Corrie chose not to react violently but the idea that they had, effectively, ‘agreed’ to the takeover of their ship – which saying there was no ‘force’ involved indicates – is nonsensical.

The Free Gaza flotilla stands in a proud tradition of nonviolent interventions, in some cases exactly like this one, to break an immoral and illegal blockade. All those choosing to participate in a nonviolent action have to be aware of the risks they are taking but few could have conceived of such a violent Israeli state response. It is true that vicious reactions can expose the nature of violent oppression of people but this kind of deadly response was not what anyone on the flotilla would reasonably have expected; rough handling yes, bullets no. But terrible as how the flotilla has been treated it is nothing compared to the fate which has been meted out to the people of Gaza, arguably the largest prison camp in the world, and frequently attacked by Israeli forces with devastating effect. Yes, there is occasional Hamas military action against Israel but this is relatively small, usually ineffective and yet used to justify massive violence and oppression.

We repeat yet again that we believe Israel has the right to live in peace and security without attacks from anyone, near or far. And we repeat that this is totally impossible until Palestine and the Palestinians receive justice and a fairly defined state and statehood. The fact that Israel may be acting out of perceived self interest should not hide the fact that it is the major aggressor in the situation and Palestinians are, overwhelmingly though not always, the victims. Israel will not move to allow Palestinians the freedom they deserve until Israel realises it is in their interests to do so. It is surely in the interests of ‘the West’, and especially the USA, to help Israel realise its long term interest for security by delivering justice to Palestinians, and thereby peace and increased stability in the Middle East. This tragedy in the Middle East has been going on for generations; it is time it was settled with justice for all.

Israeli military action on the Freedom Flotilla has helped the West realise the nature of the oppression of Palestinians but it also goes to show, yet again, that ‘Western’ lives on a flotilla, or a flotilla coming from ‘the west’ (though in this case the ten killed were Turkish or of Turkish origin), are considered of much greater importance than ‘Middle Eastern’, ‘Arab’, or any other, lives.


David Stevens

The death of David Stevens removes from the scene in the North one of the foremost peace-and-reconciliation practitioners and theoreticians of both the Troubles era and afterwards, in fact of his generation. He was leader of the Corrymeela Community for the past half dozen years. (1) He died on 23rd May just seven weeks after a diagnosis of cancer.

David Stevens became involved with Corrymeela in 1966, only a year or so after it had started. This era was joked about in telling the, only slightly apocryphal, story of arrivals at the Ballycastle Centre being told – “You’ll have to make your own bed” – and being handed wood, nails and a hammer. David eventually succeeded Trevor Williams as the fourth leader of Corrymeela at the start of 2004. At this stage the post-Troubles era was beginning in earnest and funding was a major issue for an organisation with so many staff and volunteers; job losses followed or the end result for Corrymeela would have been much worse, as in possible bankruptcy. David made difficult decisions but was very aware of the human cost of those decisions. However the availability of capital funding meant that the Coventry building at the Ballycastle centre was rebuilt ‘on his watch’, and the rebuilding of the Village started.

But David had a wide variety of involvements in church, community, volunteering and reconciliation sectors, and his advice was always worth having. Although holding a doctorate in chemistry, he worked 25 years for the inter-church structures in Ireland, becoming General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches in 1992. (2) In the period around 1999 he worked hard to bring about the amalgamation of the two inter-church structures, the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (the latter began in 1973 and included the Catholic Church which the other did not). This passed through all the appropriate structures only to fall, at the very last hurdle, in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, his own church (of which he was an elder); the conservatives held the voting power and the amalgamation was voted down. This was a devastating and extremely frustrating blow for him but all he could do was dust himself down and continue on.

While working for the inter-church structures David had active involvements in the peace and reconciliation scene, both internally and externally. He had intimate connections with research on sectarianism, and with work for, and funding of, community relations. He oversaw the work of the Churches Peace Education Programme which produced important material, at both primary and secondary level, on a number of different aspects of peace education. He was involved in church funding for the community sector in the context of the Troubles. He was a leading member of the Faith and Politics Group, a cross-community and cross-border group of Christians from different backgrounds who produced important documents charting the way forward at that particular point, and burning issue, of the Troubles. (3) His paper on Northern Ireland and the Troubles was a standard reference point and much used. (4)

David Stevens was one of those people who you believed deserved a long and happy retirement because they pushed themselves so hard in their working life. Sadly he died a few years before retirement age. One retirement project which will not now be accomplished is what would have been his definitive story of the churches in Ireland in relation to the Troubles, a task for which he would have been eminently qualified through both his knowledge and his contacts. In addition to many papers, and the Faith and Politics pamphlets which he drafted or had an influential role in, he had two books on reconciliation under his own name. (5)

David was not a practical person in the handyman sense but when it came to analysing finances, or the strategic steps an organisation needed to take to reach an objective, he was immensely practical and pragmatic while at the same time holding a vision of what could be. His role as practitioner and theoretician was important; he tried to walk the talk and talk the walk. While in public he might be seen as serious and intellectual, his social persona was rather different, in personal interaction or in party mode; his loud laughter, glass of wine in hand and legs akimbo at some unusual angle which might be distressingly uncomfortable for someone else, was also part of his being. Well read in theology, in politics, and in fiction, he could discourse on many subjects, and took a keen interest in fine art. His sense of humour, with a very well developed sense of the ridiculous, was displayed in closely analysing some recent and totally absurd manifestation of politics or religion (and being Northern Ireland there was an ample supply of such manifestations). But, as his recent piece on Iris Robinson in the ‘Corrymeela’ magazine showed, he only laughed at the ridiculousness of life and not at the persons concerned for whom he retained respect and understanding. He was personally extremely modest and you knew that issues were never personalised.

I had hoped to interview David later this year for this publication. That appointment was brought forward in the light of his illness, scheduled for what turned out to be around the time of his funeral. One question which I would have asked was the old staple, in the context of the Troubles, of Catholics in Northern Ireland talking about justice, and Protestants about reconciliation. I don’t know what he would have said but I would imagine he would have stressed the impossibility of reconciliation without justice. Justice was prophetic, biblical, and the sine qua non of reconciliation – this is what I imagine would have been part of what he said. Reconciliation had to be a true relationship between people built on justice.

David Stevens was very happily married to Mathilde with two grown-up children, Thomas and Naomi. Thomas portrayed so well, at David’s thanksgiving service, David as the father and family figure, his “Let’s wait and see” response to children’s demands both a pragmatic and a loving response.

When his final illness was diagnosed, David threw himself into activity with his family, and sorting out his personal affairs plus those of Corrymeela. His time was limited and sadly much shorter than he and others hoped but he was undeterred. The day before he died, he visited his local library to read the Saturday papers, as was his custom when free of other duties. F E McWilliam was Northern Ireland’s best known sculptor and David passed one of his works (‘The Family’) every working day for twenty-five years; this same day, the day before he died, he journeyed to Banbridge with Mathilde to the F E McWillliam sculpture garden there. Art is partly about transcendence, stepping out of space and time to see things differently and as they truly are, and David Stevens was a practitioner in that art and although not an ‘artist’ he was a writer and analyst. We are poorer, in many ways, for his death but are thankful for what he achieved and what he has meant to so many people.




(3) - see under ‘Faith and Politics Group’


(5) “The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation”, Columba Press, 2004, and “The place called reconciliation: Texts to explore”, Corrymeela Press, 2008.

- - - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

King Midas & Oil

It is the morning of the June bank holiday. My window is open to the bees, butterflies and the smell of the blossom on my fruit trees. The melodies of the birds are more soothing than the chants of Cistercian monks. The day is warm, sunny and bright. My young daughter is asleep in her bed, and if she is having the dream she had yesterday she is on a carpet in magic land playing with her friends. There is food in the kitchen cupboard, electricity in the meter and all seems well with the world, as it must seem for millions of people on these islands at the beginning of summer.

However, this sense of wellness is somewhat illusionary for we live in a world of inter-dependencies which means that events in other parts of the world can affect us all, and sometimes in a sudden and stressful way as many travellers experienced when their flights were cancelled due to the volcanic ash from the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland in April and May. The news that is presently receiving a great deal of attention, and will for many months, is the estimated 19,000 barrels of oil gushing daily from the bed of the Gulf of Mexico. The oil, courtesy of BP, is creating dead zones and putting more than 8,300 species of plants and animals at risk. We know that the bluefin tuna, face extinction. The chemicals used in an attempt to disperse the oil are as toxic as the oil itself. Writing on the use of the dispersants in The Independent On Sunday, 30th May, Emily Dugan informs us that: “Once these harmful substances enter the food chain, almost nothing will escape their effects. Forests of coral, sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, game fish and thousands of shellfish could all face destruction.”

Given ecological and economic interdependencies, it is likely that most of humanity will be affected by the oil spill. The Environment: Aside from the ecocide in the miles of ocean, beaches, marshes and land directly affected by the spill, one oceanologist has predicted that hurricanes and sea currents will eventually deposit some of the oil on the beaches of Ireland and Britain. Food: Forty percent of the fish eaten in the United States comes from the Gulf of Mexico. This can only mean that rich America will take the protein out of the mouths of the poor, including the millions who live in the coastal regions of Africa. The Economy: BP contributes billions in UK tax revenue. With the dramatic fall in the value of the company the flow of money from BP to the exchequer will plunge, which in turn can only lead to cuts in public services and more unemployment. The value of pensions will also be affected.

The oil spillage reminds me of the King Midas story in Greek mythology in which the King wished that everything he touched turned to gold. This is the aspiration of most people today, one that is drip-fed by the no alternative to economic growth ideology of our political leaders, whetted by aggressive advertising. In time King Midas learned the folly of his wish and asked the god Dionysus to undo it. He preferred less gold and more wellbeing. The gold our business and political kings want is oil, plentiful and cheap, regardless of the fact that it ruins almost everything it touches, and with other fossil fuels is turning the planet into a hothouse.

One can only hope that like King Midas we will learn from our folly and forgo our dependency on oil and make the transition to an environmentally sustainable and equitable way of life. Our growth orientated economy is not ordained. This means we can create a system that enables us, including future generations, to live comfortable fulfilled lives within the constraints of Gaia.

A sobering thought is that if BP had successfully tapped this oil it would have met 12 hours of global consumption.

Copyright INNATE 2021