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Wednesday, 11 Feb 2009

Business of Joint Committee.

I remind members and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile phones and BlackBerry devices are switched off completely because they interfere with the recording equipment in the committee room.

The minutes of the meeting of 28 January 2009 have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed.

The next item is a motion in the names of Senator Norris and Deputy Higgins on the conflict in Gaza. As I have tabled an amendment to the motion, I ask Deputy O'Hanlon to take the Chair for this part of the meeting.

Deputy Rory O'Hanlon took the Chair.

Does Deputy Woods wish to make a statement before tabling his amendment?

Yes. As there are a number of views and opinions, I have put together a composite statement. I propose to read the statement with a view to seeking agreement.

The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs urges the Government to continue its support for moves to establish an independent international investigation into alleged violations of international humanitarian law during Israel's military action in Gaza, including the use of white phosphorus in densely inhabited civilian areas, the use of dime munitions and the shelling of the UN facilities, including schools which were being used as places of sanctuary by Palestinian civilians, as well as the question of collective punishment; to maintain discussions with the representatives of countries such as Belgium, Cyprus, Sweden and Portugal which have also supported this move; that the independent international investigation also investigate the indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians perpetrated by Hamas and others, the alleged storage of munitions in civilian locations and shooting of innocent Palestinians by Hamas. Furthermore, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the objective of having the state of Israel and an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security; urges the Government to continue to fully support such a resolution of the conflict and to take all appropriate steps in the United Nations, at EU level and in its bilateral international relations to promote and achieve such a resolution; supports the international Quartet, the European Union, the USA, Russia and the United Nations, in its work to resolve the conflict; welcomes the appointment by President Obama of George Mitchell as his Middle East peace envoy; calls on Iran to end its opposition to a two-state solution; commends the initiative taken by Egypt to mediate a durable ceasefire between Israel and Hamas; and urges all sides to fully co-operate with the UNRWA to facilitate the provision by it in Gaza of humanitarian relief.

Is the statement agreed?

I wish to raise two or three matters. An amendment to Senator Norris's original motion has been tabled in my name and that of Deputy Timmins which seeks to deal with the matter without featuring the various allegations made by both sides in order that the motion cannot be used to cast stones but to ensure any violation of international humanitarian law is fully investigated. The motion seeks to detail the matters in question but in so doing so it should not exclude other issues. I suggest a particular amendment which would ensure a balance was achieved.

As indicated on line 11 of the motion, each side is making allegations against the other. The motion urges that "the independent international investigation also investigate the indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians perpetrated by Hamas and others" but I suggest inserting the words "the alleged use of civilians as human shields", a matter of some controversy, but, if excluded, would mean the motion was unbalanced as regards the allegations made by each side.

The motion also mentions "the alleged storage of munitions in civilian locations", which may or may not be correct but should form part of the motion. Part of the allegation, however, is that munitions were not only stored in civilian locations but also in mosques. Therefore, the words "and mosques" should be included. Will Deputy Woods confirm whether the reference to civilian locations includes the possibility that hospitals were also used?

The other matter which seems to be excluded is the firing of rockets adjacent to UN facilities such as schools and hospitals, as well as on civilians. All these matters are the subject of cross-allegations and it is important we do not leave out some, as each side could raise other issues which should be investigated. For the sake of balance, it is important the matters I have raised are included.

I congratulate the Chairman on his judiciously-worded statement. I have no problems with it and if it were the motion, I would support it. It deals with the issues involved in a balanced way. I tabled the motion which was seconded by Deputy Michael D. Higgins in response to the appalling situation in Gaza but was happy to accept amendments from the Chairman which were communicated to me, as well as from Deputies Timmins and Shatter which broaden the matter. However, I believe the original motion should stand and that these other matters should serve to amplify it. I cannot say whether there were munitions in mosques. It is a possibility but there is no doubt that a number of mosques, with worshippers inside, were flattened by Israeli shells. No munitions were subsequently found in the mosques in question, which is a matter which we should address.

I wish to be fair in this matter. There is a dispute as to which authorities exist in Gaza but Israel is a state. I know it quite well and admire many of its features. It is a very beautiful country and I have many contacts on both sides. The fact that it acted as a state in this matter makes this very serious. There is prima facie evidence of what happened, which is not partisan and emanates from a number of reputable international organisations. I also record the voices of Israeli Jewish citizens of great conscience. I recognise how difficult it is for people with a loyalty; that includes Israeli Jewish citizens and Jewish citizens of Ireland. I was brought up as a southern Unionist to believe the British Empire was the greatest civilising influence on the planet but I had to learn about the evictions, penal laws and other types of discrimination. It was very painful and I particularly honour those people who have allowed their concern for humanity to overcome their background. I recognise that is not easy and is perhaps the reason I have had an unusually heavy correspondence from people of a very committed nature.

I welcome the statement and if this motion cannot be agreed, I would like to return to the original motion, amended by inclusion of the material that my colleagues from the Chairman to Fine Gael Deputies have recommended. I have no problem including their material but I wish to put forward my motion, with this series of requirements to investigate matters. I was very close to this as I was in the Middle East watching events streamed on al-Jazeera.

I congratulate our Chairman, Deputy Woods, on tabling the motion put before us on what we all understand is a very difficult issue. What we have before us by way of the statement deals with many of the issues we are aware of. I appreciate the comments of Senator Norris and Deputy Shatter, and the only aspect I would query is whether we should touch on the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. I know international humanitarian law is dealt with so I am not sure if it is covered under that. We know people are being held, which is in breach of international law.

I see what is proposed by the Chairman, Deputy Woods, as a preliminary statement that would lead to a restructuring of the original motion and amendments submitted to it. I have no difficulty with any allegation or assertion being examined on any side. It has been my position all along, although I pointed it out in vain, that non-state actors are as bound as state actors in the compliance with international law. There is a difference in proportion between the capacity of state actors to observe international law and there are different levels of implications. That is for the independent body to decide.

I have no difficulty in extending the remit of the independent international investigation to include the other matters referred to with the status of allegations, which was proposed. We should not miss the significance of this statement, which speaks about an independent international investigation.

We had a presentation earlier from Amnesty International and an accompanying press statement, which was given by the representative of that organisation who was the first to arrive in Gaza after the most recent conflict had begun. An interesting point is that Amnesty International is still looking for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution that would set up an investigation. In reality, we know a veto would be used to block any such proposal. The statement is correct in leaving its emphasis on the idea of an independent international investigation.

As the seconder of the original motion, it is not my intention to ever confine such an investigation but we should not extend it so widely so as to deal with other matters to justify our opinion in its own right. For example, the point was made by Senator Callely about the soldier who has been held for three years; it is inhumane to hold him.

That is a matter we can discuss in its own right. The Chairman's statement is comprehensive and I see it as an introduction, as I understand it, to the original motion. It is amended by Deputy Woods to include references to Sderot and other areas, and this is acceptable. On the substantive matter in the Fine Gael amendment, the majority of this is accommodated in the statement. If the original amendment had proceeded, beginning as it does with the deletion of the main purpose of our motion, that would not have been acceptable.

We have had reports and will have more from individual NGOs. There are issues regarding the protection of civilians and the question of the freedom of civilians to move between locations. This boils down to whether they have choice or have chosen to be part of a particular site of conflict. There are issues relating to the behaviour of the military and non-state actors. All these can be accommodated in such an investigation. I hope we can go forward on that basis, which would be welcome at this stage.

In all our dealings on the Israeli-Palestine issue, this committee has endeavoured to be fair and balanced, and the statement from the Chairman is exactly that. It is important as a committee that we come to agreement on what to say. It would be detrimental to the committee and the good work it has done if we did not agree. We have afforded the opportunity for the Israeli ambassador and other representatives of the Israeli Government to present before this committee, and rightly so. We have had different Palestinian groups, including NGOs in Ireland, before us and we will have another presentation today.

The statement is fair and balanced, and it is a concise and important declaration from this committee. Across Europe, Ireland's standing and that of the Oireachtas is held in high regard. Even from the Israeli side, our viewpoint is seen as important. I find no fault with this statement, which builds on the balanced way in which we have dealt with this matter while ensuring everyone's point of view is taken into account.

I have a few brief points but am also seeking clarification. With regard to the motion of Senator Norris and Deputy Higgins, while I do not doubt the intention of it, as it stands alone it is something we could not support. It is very judgmental in the first instance.

With regard to our amendment, the kernel of the issue is to have the international inquiry into the allegations. The last four lines of our motion contain the purpose of all motions in a very clear manner. It is not judgmental or prescriptive. It is important that agreement on a solution for a way forward is found. We included in the preamble, or first ten or 12 lines of our amendment, the Government and EU position, and it is important that is included in the motion.

I commend the Chairman for bringing forward his statement. It may be a little over-prescriptive, and in doing so, it risks running into difficulties about what is excluded. Our amendment is not prescriptive but is balanced. Nobody can point out that it is an unbalanced motion. I seek a few points of clarification on Senator Norris's contribution. I am not sure if he said he was happy with the Chairman's amendment or whether he wants his original motion to replace the amendments made by the Chairman.

Is Deputy Timmins referring to the statement?

I am happy with that if that is acceptable to Deputy Timmins.

Is the Chairman happy with the points made by Deputy Shatter, notwithstanding the fact that it may give rise to over-prescription? This is a matter about which I have concern.

There will not be a solution to the conflict until Hamas meets the requirements as laid down by the Quartet for involvement in the peace process. This is included in line 10 of our motion in a reference to the three conditions prescribed by the EU and Quartet for the involvement of Hamas in the peace process. This is not included in the Chairman's motion but perhaps that is due to a clerical error. I ask him to include this in his motion.

I did not get a copy of the Fine Gael motion.

It is an amendment.

What we have before us is a statement from Deputy Woods. There is also a motion in the name of Senator Norris.

There was an attempt to bring the different texts together.

I welcome the statement by Deputy Woods. We are playing with words and it should be very easy to come to a broader opinion on which all sides can come together. There is very little difference in what many speakers are saying. I hope this is the way we will go forward.

I wish to respond to one small point, encouraged by Deputy Timmins, about the dangers of over-prescription. These dangers are represented in the lines that suggest support for the international Quartet — EU, USA, Russia and the UN — in its work to resolve the conflict. We should not confine the possibilities of peace to this mechanism only. We should refer to other initiatives. There may be other initiatives involving the region and the international community, which may involve the United Nations. In making amendments to the text circulated by Deputy Woods, that should be included.

I congratulate and support Deputy Woods on his statement. It is balanced and fair and Fine Gael is nitpicking, as Senator Ormonde has mentioned. We have reached the point where Fine Gael will oppose anything that is vaguely critical of Israel. Fine Gael has decided to give ongoing support to extremism, which is unfortunate. The party has supported extremism by its ongoing support for Israeli action.

There is ground for a large measure of agreement, including Fine Gael, in what the Chairman has usefully put together. Some Fine Gael colleagues referred to being over-prescriptive, a point that was taken up by Deputy Higgins. That is what we are getting into and it is unhelpful to insist on the three conditions prescribed by the EU and the Quartet. One does not go into negotiations or discussions when the hands of one party are tied. The EU has not behaved honourably with regard to Hamas. I do not have a great time for Hamas and Mr. John Ging has recently complained about the looting and the unscrupulous use by Hamas of supplies. I do not support moves towards growing theocratisation of Gaza but insisting on three preconditions is totally unhelpful. The original motion is referred to in the final lines of this amendment, which skews the emphasis and balance from what I and Deputy Higgins sought. I was responding in particular to the call made by Mr. John Ging — an Irish man of exceptional stature, heroic courage and integrity — who stayed in the middle of it to suffer with the civilian people and who called repeatedly on the international community to establish such an inquiry.

Whatever about disputes concerning mosques, there is no question of dispute on the fact that DIME munitions were used. Independent medical authorities are speaking of extraordinary wounds, the likes of which they had never seen before, where the area of penetration in the human body is quite small and almost insignificant but the damage to internal organs has never been seen before. New weapons are being used. White phosphorus has been heavily employed.

Gaza is an area the size of greater Dublin with 1 million people concentrated. It is not possible, as everyone must know, to separate the civilian population and these shells rained down. There is some dispute about whether the schools whose co-ordinates were known were shelled deliberately. Certainly, shells landed very near the schools. Mr. John Ging never made a single mistake even though attempts were made to undermine his evidence. I listened to every word he said and have seen his statements.

I receive many press releases from the Israeli embassy, from Mr. Derek O'Flynn. With engaging candour, he reports Mr. John Ging.

Perhaps the Senator will not go into too much detail.

I will just make one point. Mr. John Ging said that the Israelis had indicated that they were responding to fire and produced video footage allegedly of this incident, allegedly showing people firing from inside their houses. He said that he had seen this before. Now, this is an Israeli statement. That film came from 2007. We must consider the situation we all witnessed in horror and view it in a compassionate way. I am happy to be balanced and to include these other matters and the Chairman's statement does that. I have done my best to be accommodating. I have said that I accept the amendments of Deputy Shatter or Deputy Timmins. To me, the best fusing of these is the statement of the Chairman and I would have no difficulty in supporting that. I have gone a fair distance towards my Fine Gael colleagues in accepting this.

I am not a member of the committee but I am inclined to support Deputy Woods's motion and the amendments referred to by Deputy Shatter concerning the alleged use of civilians as human shields. Where Deputy Shatter suggests it should be inserted gives the impression that it was only Hamas. This should apply to any force in the area, Israeli or Palestinian. This point could be inserted at a different point in the motion. It is a pity that we have not heard Mr. John Ging before the committee and it might be useful if he can attend and give his experience to the committee. We have heard him answering on television and radio and he is one of the most knowledgeable independent witnesses of what happened in that three-week period. It would be useful for everyone in this House to listen to what he has to say and to invite other witnesses who were in the area during that period. The statement by Deputy Woods should serve as an attempt by this committee and the Oireachtas to set out our demands to the wider world.

The statement by Deputy Woods represents a fair and honest effort to accommodate the views of the committee in their totality. Does Deputy Woods propose to accept Deputy Shatter's suggested amendments? Although they would make the statement slightly more prescriptive, I support their import. Deputy Michael D. Higgins made the valid point that we should not tie ourselves exclusively to the initiative of the international Quartet but should instead leave the door open to other international initiatives, present or future. Developments may be taking place in the background of which we are unaware. The reference to support for the international Quartet of the European Union, United States, United Nations and Russia sounds prescriptive, but that is Government policy, as I understand it. It would be preferable for the views of the committee to correspond with that of the Minister in Iveagh House. It is important that we reach consensus on this. For that reason, it is worth retaining this phrase.

However, it is preferable to include the additions we have suggested.

Yes. It would be helpful if Deputy Woods would indicate his attitude to the suggested amendments. I am confident we can reach agreement.

To clarify, the second amendment was submitted in my name and that of my colleague, Deputy Shatter, but has been circulated to members in Deputy Shatter's name only.

Deputy Noonan has covered some of the issues I intended to raise. I support Deputy Higgins's point on the importance of not confining ourselves to support for the international Quartet. I reiterate the point in regard to Hamas. That is Government policy; it is not a case of Fine Gael nitpicking. Broadly speaking, we are in agreement on the position we propose to put forward. I have no difficulty with Senator Callely's proposal regarding the Israeli military, although this may not be the place to include it.

That is a side issue, although it is important.

Yes. It is not necessary to prescribe it in the motion but it is an issue that should be examined.

We could talk about these matters all day but the important point is that we seem to have achieved broad agreement. I am not interested in coming into conflict with other members. Deputy Chris Andrews is entitled to his opinion but he is not entitled to misrepresent my opinion or that of Fine Gael. We have tried to bring forward a balanced motion that is entirely in line with his party's policy. It is important to acknowledge that. We should not be concerned merely with scoring political points.

On the question of the three conditions, I had removed them. They are not in the statement. The inclusion of the phrase "and other initiatives" will cover the point made by several members that we should not tie ourselves to the international Quartet. Deputy Shatter referred to the use of civilians as human shields. That can be added as one of the allegations.

The word "alleged" should be included in this instance.

The word "alleged" is being added in all cases.

I agree that civilian locations should include hospitals, schools and other such places. We can include a reference to the firing of rockets adjacent to schools and hospitals.

Again, the word "alleged" should be included.

All the incidents listed are indicated as being "alleged".

I have been careful to use the word "alleged" in all instances. Are members agreed on the statement?

May I clarify one issue? I agree with what Deputy Higgins said about the other parties who may be involved in trying to achieve a peace process. The original Fine Gael amendment and Deputy Woods's amendment include a reference to Mr. George Mitchell, whom we hope may achieve some miracles, as he achieved on this island. However, I am somewhat confused by one omission. It is an important point and an issue that is part of Government policy, which is the reason it was included in the amendment tabled by Deputy Timmins and me. I refer to the three conditions specified by the Quartet in the context of engaging——

I do not propose to reopen that debate.

I ask this question merely because this is an aspect of Government policy. I am curious as to why it is omitted.

I understand there may be discussion on these issues. They are not black and white. We wish to avoid being overly prescriptive. Those conditions are there and everybody agrees they are there and must be worked through. However, there may ultimately be more than three or there may be two and a half or whatever. We know what the objective is in this regard and we support it.

If we are agreed in principle, perhaps Deputy Woods will ask the secretariat to circulate an amended version of the motion. We seem to be in general agreement at this point.

I am pleased members have accepted my point of view on the desirability of not limiting ourselves to the international Quartet. This is a practical approach to take. Deputy Woods has to represent not only the Government position but that of the committee. We must ensure the wording does not serve to confine us to existing initiatives. Perhaps the relevant section should be amended to include the words "...the proposals of the Quartet and such other proposals as exist or may be brought forward". This means we will not be confined only to what is currently on offer. I do not consider this contentious. For example, if Mr. Mitchell succeeds in devising some proposal, we have allowed for that. I suggest the words "such others as may emerge and be helpful" or similar should be included. However, I am not tied to any specific wording.

It might be helpful——

I will come back to Deputy Shatter.

If it is merely a question of wording, I have a proposal——

I will come back to the Deputy. I have called Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

The reference to the use of civilians in Deputy Shatter's amendment suggests it is applicable only to Hamas. I propose that reference instead be made to the "alleged use of civilians as human shields by Israeli and Palestinian military forces". There have been allegations that both military forces have engaged in this activity.

Where do we proceed from here? Will Deputy Woods's amended version go forward as a statement or a motion? I would prefer the former. As a replacement for the original motion, it has met with general agreement. If agreement can be reached in this regard, I would be pleased to accept the amendments to the proposal I made in conjunction with Deputy Higgins.

As seconder of those proposals, I am of the same view.

Deputy Higgins's amendment refers to our support for "the international Quartet in its work to resolve the conflict". I suggest we amend this to read "the international Quartet and others in their work to resolve the conflict". That deals neatly with the issue.

It does. Or we could simply say "such as the Quartet".

A reference to "the work of others engaged in seeking to resolve the conflict" deals with the issue in a clear and understandable way.

After our first round of negotiations, I included reference to "and other initiatives".

That would be fine.

Will this be dealt with as a motion?

Should it not be dealt with as a statement?

I do not mind. If it is feasible to take it as a motion on which there can be unanimous agreement, I will be pleased to do so.

It is effectively my motion, as amended.

It is a unanimous motion of the committee.

Is it agreed to take the amended statement as a motion? Agreed. Senator Norris's motion is now withdrawn. Is that correct?

Yes, it is withdrawn in favour of the amended version to be produced by Deputy Woods.

As a result, the two amendments fall. I will now hand back to the Chairman.

As I intend to put the motion before the Seanad, perhaps my colleagues in the other House will put it before the Dáil, which would triple the impact.

I presume it can be furnished to both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The motion will be put to both Houses.

It does so automatically.

Deputy Michael Woods took the Chair.