Terrorists at the Peace Table

RECENT events, including the cease-fires of Catholic and Protestant militants in Northern Ireland and acts of violence by Hamas in Israel, have brought terrorism and its results once more to public attention. The two cases illustrate the problems of curbing and ultimately eliminating the threat of such acts.

Terrorism, as repugnant as it is, can achieve at least partial results. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) appears to be pushing effectively toward a seat at the negotiating table on the future of Northern Ireland, although polls in Ulster register only about 12.5 percent support for its political wing, Sinn Fein. Hamas, the militant Islamic Palestinian organization, through kidnappings and attacks in Israel, has achieved at least part of its goal of disrupting the Middle East peace process. Its actions have resulted in harsh measures by the Israeli government against Palestinians that may well increase support for the Hamas position in Gaza, Jericho, and the occupied territories.

The strength of such movements lies to a considerable extent in their capacity to develop support in countries not directly involved in the issues that spark the violence. The IRA for many years benefited from assistance from Irish individuals and groups in the United States; although the US may seek to play a role in the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict, the ultimate decisions rest with Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and the people of the territory.

Hamas reportedly receives assistance from groups in the US and individuals - if not governments - in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The final determination of the course of events in Israel and the Palestinian territories, however, will rest only tangentially, if at all, with these supporters.

The ardent external supporters of extremist groups see issues through a narrow focus. Among its politically influential allies in the US, the IRA is erroneously assumed to represent majority Catholic opinion in Northern Ireland. Thus, it was Gerry Adams of the IRA who received high-level executive and congressional attention in Washington when he declared a cease-fire, not John Hume, the leader of a more widely supported moderate Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Supporters of Hamas reject the compromises that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has made to achieve peace and pursue a disruptive campaign of violence against Israel.

In both cases, if there is to be peace, the groups responsible for terrorist acts are likely to be represented in future elections to determine the fate and the leadership in the affected territories. As the IRA has done, presumably Hamas will need to agree to a renunciation of violence. But then another obstacle arises. The positions of each are irreconcilable with solutions envisaged by the responsible parties. The IRA seeks the incorporation of the six provinces of Northern Ireland into a united Ireland, a position counter to the interests of the Protestant majority supported by the British. In the occupied territories of Palestine, Hamas strongly opposes the peace process and presumably seeks an unconditional return of all the territories to an independent Palestinian state, a position unlikely to be accepted by any Israeli government.

If, through acts of violence, parties push their way to the negotiating table and an election process, will they then be prepared to accept the results peacefully? This question looms ahead in both situations. The answer will lie largely with external supporters. If IRA supporters in the United States or Hamas supporters in the Arab world resist accepting election results and continue to support unrealistic goals through violent means, all parties will be losers.

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