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The question is always the same, whether it's an Israeli or Palestinian checkpoint.

"Where are you from?" Like most journalists operating on the West Bank and Gaza Strip we have 'TV' emblazoned in huge letters on the sides of our bullet-proof vehicles and when the policemen or soldiers pose the question, they want to know what television station and which country.

When I was new to this place, two years ago, the reply was, "ITN, British television". Often the British bit didn't go down that well, so now my stock answer is always, "Ireland... from Belfast actually".

The reaction is first a smile, then either an incredulous, "And you chose to come here?" or a nodding, "Ah, so you understand what's going on."

"Yes, I suppose. Same story, better weather."

We usually get waved through the roadblocks where other news crews are often stopped.

Both sides here feel an empathy with Northern Ireland - Israeli journalists in particular use the Belfast of the seventies and eighties as the nadir that Jerusalem and Tel Aviv must avoid at all costs.

There's no doubt there are similarities between the two conflicts. During the mid nineties, the Middle East and Northern Ireland peace processes both seemed to be heading in the right direction, but not now.

The Belfast I returned to over the New Year was very different from the one I left in August 2000. Vast swathes of the city that I remember as derelict have been regenerated with flash office buildings, bars and restaurants.

Belfast even has an ice hockey team with its own home rink, the Odyssey. The Giants have no historical religious baggage and as such are a wonderfully neutral, as well as popular phenomenon.

Attitudes have also changed. There's optimism in the air. How quickly people have shrugged off the gloom that was part and parcel of their lives for so long.

PROBLEMS remain, of course. Recent events in North Belfast, in particular, show there's not yet clear blue water ahead.

Looking back, things sure are much improved on a decade ago. A political accommodation of sorts has been found, a complicated arrangement, scratch-built to suit the Province's peculiarities.

But it has shown itself to be more durable - some would say malleable - than many had feared. It has also allowed people to set aside the national question for the time being.

Both sides now have the chance to be stakeholders, with the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart, regardless of whether they see it as part of the UK or a united Ireland.

How different the perspective is in Jerusalem. The peace process that had appeared to be developing in tandem with Northern Ireland's is now all but defunct.

My own career began almost a generation ago as a reporter at the Tyrone Constitution in Omagh.

I covered Belfast for the next 17 years, first for the paper, then for Ulster Television and subsequently as ITN's Ireland correspondent. And in covering stories from the Shankill Road, Enniskillen and Drumcree I felt that I had become fairly hardened.

I believe I was better equipped, in that sense, to come out here than many other journalists would be.

But the truth is that nothing can really prepare you for the shock of how cheaply human life is valued here. There are so many violent deaths, at such short intervals, that no one killing can be mused upon for too long.

As one of my US colleagues noted, the lead story can change every 30 minutes.

The fact that my wife and child have come with me only reinforces that feeling. In one case, the head of a suicide bomber ended up in my child's school playground.

In Belfast I covered riots and stone-throwing which could sometimes be very tense and frightening. But even that couldn't prepare me for the West Bank, where 200 stone throwers have been shot dead in the past four months.

AND in Belfast, the days of no-warning attacks and of the deliberate slaughter of civilians have - with the tragic exception of Omagh - largely become a thing of the past. Not here.

The difference is that, in Jerusalem, what divides still dominates.

What kind of hatred compels a young Palestinian man to become a suicide bomber?

Many of them are university graduates who suddenly become gripped by a desire to kill as many Israelis as possible - the ending of their own lives being a necessity to that end.

The Israeli reaction is always predictable, often understandable, but never a resolution. Experience suggests heavy-handedness is a great recruiting sergeant for more suicide bombers.

For the moment, there is no political solution in sight. Both the Israelis and Palestinians are led by old men with neither the inclination or the ability to prepare their peoples for the compromises necessary for peace.

The Israeli prime minister must take much of the blame for sparking the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

Protected by hundreds of armed soldiers he walked onto the Temple Mount, Jerusalem's most contested holy site, and proclaimed it an integral part of Israel.

It was taken by the Israelis during the Six-Day War, but it is also the third-holiest site in Islam.

It's rather like Ian Paisley walking through Derry's Bogside and declaring it British. Technically he's right, but Yassir Arafat is still talking about the Palestinian "right-of-return" to Israel.

If that's not acknowledged, he says, there'll be no deal. Well, if Israel allows four million Palestinian refugees inside its borders then the Jews will be outnumbered. There would be no more Israel, so it won't happen.

The Middle East peace process is all but defunct and a commentator has observed, "Belfast is already a generation ahead of Jerusalem.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement is a complicated marriage contract. Both parties married for money and power. Instead of tearing strips off each other, the politicians find themselves in control of a huge budget that must be shared.

The situation in the Holy Land is different.

What's required here is a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.


HOLY LAND: A wounded Palestinian is carried to safety; HOLY CROSS: Children go to school in divided North Belfast
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 15, 2002
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