What Lessons Can Israel Learn From Northern Ireland’s Troubles

The Israeli government’s approach to Hamas has been, by most accounts, unsuccessful. Israel’s citizens were not protected, despite what seems to have been expectations of preventing that appalling Hamas attack. And the decisive military defeat of Hamas did not occur. The staggering costs inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza in response has also helped turn much global opinion negative, while doing little to bolster the security of ordinary Israelis.

Historically, it is responses to terrorism that have changed the world more than the violence itself, often in profoundly unwelcome ways. The post-9/11 Global War on Terror provides one example, with an overly militarized U.S. response that saw the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the premise that the country had Weapons of Mass Destruction. The blowback led to the Islamic State. This 2024 Israel-Hamas war looks poised to offer another destabilizing example, risking the perpetuation of cycles of bloodshed in the future, as well as the possibility of a conflict with neighboring states.

Counterterrorism is, by nature, extremely difficult. Successes tend to be less visible than failures. When the bomb goes off, it is a high-profile tragedy. When attacks are prevented, much less attention tends to be paid. Again, the understandable demand that governments do something now can override the logic of patient, long-term progress that is essential to a successful counterterrorism program. Immediate tactics that too often rely on military methods can seem to address the public’s need to do something. But they often have ambiguous or deleterious effects in practice.

All of that is playing out in Gaza today. To be sure, Israel has had some successes since Oct. 7. Hamas has been damaged, significant numbers of its fighters killed, and much of its infrastructure has been destroyed.

But these tactical successes have been accompanied by strategic failure (and immense human costs)—a pattern that Israel is no stranger to. That was the case in the wars that saw Israel seize the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, a stunning military win that also had the effect of emboldening long-term Arab opposition and hostility to the Jewish state. The expulsion led to the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from that country, but also contributed to the creation of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, still a major military opponent of Israel decades later.

What approach, then, should Israel pursue in the wake of Oct. 7? The key is combining shorter term tactical needs with a longer term strategy. That would entail demonstrating to Hamas and other militant groups and their supporters that violence will not bring victory. But this would still need to come with the opportunity for alternative, non-violent routes toward political progress, something currently lacking for Palestinians. Indeed, in recent years, the occupation in occupied Palestinian territories has blocked political progress on peace talks all while enabling hardline Palestinian actors. That has fundamentally undermined the prospect of a two-state solution, which, despite its flaws, is the best way forward to respect the explicable demand by both national communities for self-determination.

Each conflict is, of course, unique. But there are historical parallels to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that may be instructive. In the early 1990s, when the peace process was going well during the Oslo Accords, and the one in Northern Ireland was going badly amid cycles of violence in Belfast, it was common for people to suggest that peace would arrive in the Middle East first. Now, decades after a successful peace deal in Belfast, people sometimes assume that peace was always going to arrive in Ulster but that it cannot happen between Israelis and Palestinians.

In truth, such politics are neither inevitable nor impossible. In Northern Ireland, the U.K. government tactically contained violent Republicans; groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were not defeated but they were very heavily infiltrated, and many of their planned operations were thwarted. It showed the IRA that victory was clearly not arriving through violence. An inclusive and lengthy peace process then developed, with representatives from all sides in the conflict involved in crafting the agreement. This compromise did not eliminate political violence entirely. But it established substantially peaceful politics in Northern Ireland, and transformed it in extraordinary and benign ways.

Both the current Israeli government and Hamas have exaggerated what violence can achieve. That was the case on Oct. 7 when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack that killed 1,200 people, and in the seven months since that has seen Israel wage one of the deadliest campaigns this century, which has killed at least 2,000 and left much of the Strip in rubble.

Rather than continuing the current path, Israel’s best bet is to scale back its military operations in Gaza, including the blockade, for a more targeted approach focused on Hamas, all while meaningfully committing to engagement with the Palestinian Authority or some other acceptable governing group for peace talks.