Christian Communities in Occupied Palestinian Territories: Discussion

I remind members and those in the Visitors' Gallery to ensure their mobile phones and BlackBerrys are completely switched off for the duration of the meeting. These devices, even when they are in silent mode, cause interference with the recording equipment.

The first item on the agenda is the current situation for Christian communities in the occupied Palestinian territories. It is a great pleasure to welcome His Excellency, Theodosius Atallah Hanna, Archbishop of Sebastia for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Most Reverend Monsignor Manuel Musallam, priest of the Latin Roman Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and Mr. Constantine Dabbagh, executive director of the Middle East Council of Churches, MECC, and Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees in Gaza. Accompanying the delegation are Ms Marie Crawley, chair, and Mr. David Morrison, political analyst, from Sadaka - the Ireland Palestine Alliance.

This committee has been always committed to supporting all genuine efforts to achieve a just and lasting settlement in the Middle East peace process. Members have visited Israel, the West Bank and Gaza on a number of occasions. The focus of our visits has been on the humanitarian, social, economic and political impact of the current situation, including the ongoing blockade of Gaza. We are keen to hear about the impact of the current status quo on Christian communities in the occupied Palestinian territories and on access to Christian sites. I have circulated to members the correspondence we received, including a letter from the Israeli ambassador which was received yesterday.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call on Archbishop Hanna to address the committee.

Ms Marie Crawley

Would it be acceptable if I were to introduce the delegation before we proceed?

Ms Marie Crawley

I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to address them and for the welcome extended to our Palestinian guests. I wish to provide some information on the delegation. His Excellency, Theodosius Atallah Hanna, is Archbishop of Sebastia for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Archbishop Hanna was born in the Galilee district. He was ordained in 1991 and since then has held many prominent positions within the structures of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Among numerous other appointments, he was appointed professor of church history and Arab civilisation at the Arab Teachers College in Haifa. Throughout the Holy Land, he is regarded as one of the most prominent religious and spiritual leaders.

Monsignor Manuel Musallam was born in British Mandate Palestine in the West Bank town of Birzeit in 1938, ten years before the foundation of the state of Israel. He served as a priest in Jordan and Jenin before finally becoming parish priest of the Holy Family parish in Gaza, where he served until his retirement in May 2009. During his time in Gaza, Monsignor Musallam became known as the priest of the million in recognition of his unfailing care and concern for both Christians and Muslims alike. Currently president of the Christian world department at the International Relations Commission, Fatah, a member of the Islamic Christian Commission of Jerusalem, Holy Sites, and director of its Birzeit office, he is also a member of the organisation, Religions for Peace.

Mr. Constantine Dabbagh is the general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches department of service for Palestinian refugees in Gaza. He was also born in the city of Jerusalem in British Mandate Palestine in 1938 and, in 1947, was forced to flee as a refugee to the Gaza Strip. He has worked for the UN peacekeeping force in Gaza and for the UN in the Republic of Congo, now Zaire. Currently, he directs the provision of health care, education and community services of the Middle East Council of Churches, which cares for the predominantly Muslim population of Gaza. His personal and professional dialogues of justice, peace, security, mutual understanding and reconciliation have involved him in critical negotiations between political groups within Palestine, the Palestinian Authority and the international community.

Mr. David Morrison is a political analyst with Sadaka. Sadaka is hosting this tour in Ireland to give voice to Palestinian leaders and to give them a platform to speak to some of our leaders in Ireland. In their presentation, the visiting delegates will address the effects of the occupation on the Christian and Muslim populations of Palestine. They will also speak about the importance of the international community applying pressure on the state of Israel to end the occupation and to allow for the creation of an independent state of Palestine.

H.E. Archbishop Theodosius Hanna

I thank the committee very much for this reception and for giving us the opportunity to meet. We know we are visiting Ireland at a time of crisis and that it is going through an economic crisis at the moment. We stand in solidarity with Ireland and we hope the crisis will be resolved soon because Ireland should be strong and we hope to see a strong Ireland very soon.

Ireland, its leader, its Parliament and its people believe in democracy, freedom and in whatever is good for people. Ireland can play a very meaningful role in today's world in peace and justice and it can use its power of mediation to bring peoples together. There are many places in the world where there is conflict and various crises. We came to Ireland specifically to speak about the crisis in the Middle East but specifically the crisis in Palestine, in Jerusalem and the crisis that is inflicted on the Palestinian people.

What I would like members and everyone else who looks at Palestine to remember is that there are many Christian Palestinians who are very much a part of Palestine. Palestine is the place from where Christianity comes. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Holy Land in general are very important for Christians. Christian Palestinians are very aware of their Christian identity but also very much of their Palestinian identity. Everything that has happened to the Palestinians between 1948 and today has happened to all Palestinians, including Christian Palestinians.

We have come here as representatives of the various churches in Jerusalem carrying an olive branch, a symbol of peace and love. We have come to reiterate that we want peace and that we are searching for peace. We do not want to see any blood, violence or conflict. What we are after is freedom and dignity just as freedom and dignity have been bestowed on so many nations in the world. We want that too. When we speak about peace, we also speak about justice because it is impossible to have peace without justice. Peace is part of justice. Unfortunately, in the Holy Land there is no such thing as justice.

I invite members to visit the Holy Land in order that they can see how the native people are living. When I visited Berlin, I felt happy to see that the Berlin Wall had fallen but we have new walls coming up in Palestine. In Gaza, 1.5 million live in an open air prison. Perhaps the committee wants to hear about the situation of Palestinian Christians but the two cannot be separated. Christian or Muslim, we all are Palestinians and we all experience the same.

Jerusalem is also under siege. A Canadian can visit the city but, for example, Monsignor Musallam, who lives ten minutes away from there in Birzeit, cannot go there. What happens to him happens to all Palestinians in the West Bank. I was very happy to see Mr. Dabbagh over here because I cannot see him in Palestine. I had to come to Ireland to see him. There are serious human rights violations in Palestine and I appeal to the Members of the Irish Parliament to work to undo these violations of human rights. The older churches in Jerusalem in Palestine got together a few months ago and they put together a joint agreement called "Kairos Palestine". Through this document we wanted to say to the world that we are not separate from what is happening to Palestinians, but are part of the discourse. We wanted to put this together in a document through which we call upon everyone, Christians, Muslims and Jews, to work towards peace. As Christians and as Christian Palestinians, we have nothing against the Jewish religion or the Israeli people. What we are against is the use of religion for political purposes. We have many Jewish friends who meet with us and work with us towards justice for the Palestinians. We are against any kind of segregation, religious or otherwise, and very much against using religion for political purposes. I would now like to allow Monsignor Musallam contribute a word.

Monsignor Manuel Musallam

Thank you for this opportunity. I thank the committee members on behalf of our people for their compassion and tenderness towards us. The archbishop spoke about general politics, but I beg the committee to listen in another way to what I have to say. I am a Palestinian priest and I have suffered all that has happened to my people from my childhood until now. We have spoken too much about the crimes of war and crimes against humanity. I was in Gaza during the war and suffered with my people for 22 days. I saw with my own eyes a phosphoric bomb in the school yard. I saw people injured by these phosphoric bombs, although these bombs are forbidden. These crimes against us were ignored by all the people of the world. No-one was courageous enough until now to say "No" to Israel or "No" to America or to say "Stop killing" and "Stop making war". What happened in Gaza was not a war. A war is a clash between soldiers, aircraft and weapons. We were victims, just victims. They destroyed Gaza. I was there and saw with my own eyes what happened. We in Gaza were treated like animals. We tried to speak out about these crimes, but until now nobody gave us the opportunity to speak out or took the time to listen to us. Veto after veto was used against us and we were neglected and seen as impeding the freedom of countries to be on the other side. People were not able to use the shortest word in the English and say "No". They could not say "No" to the veto, "No" to death nor "No" to the war. We are not terrorists. We have not occupied Israel.

Despite all they have suffered, Palestinians, do not want to co-exist with Israel. We want to exist with Israel and to live with Israel. We do not want to die to liberate Palestine. We want to live to build Palestine. We spoke about our sufferings, the killing and death and the suffering of widows and schoolchildren. I saw the children weeping because they trampled the blood of their fathers and mothers. I saw these children. They were in my school. We spoke much about our suffering. Now let me say this. I am not a diplomat priest. I speak words as they come from my heart and my tongue. We will not stop saying that Israel is not implementing international law or resolutions. We are asking the world to give the Palestinian people their rights. The question is whether peace is possible. Despite all the difficulties, the crimes and the war, we as Palestinians say peace is possible if justice is possible. Who can provide justice for Palestine? If Israel is given justice, Palestine will be given justice at the same time. Peace is possible if truth is possible. Who can say what truth is when Israel lies all the time? Israel does not tell its people the truth. The world is not listening to what we are saying. People come to Palestine and see and discover what is happening, but once they return to their own countries, they forget. Peace is possible if development is possible. In Gaza more than 2 million fruitful trees have been uprooted and there is not a single man working in any part of Gaza. Nothing is working in Gaza. Industry has stopped. There is no cement to be found, building is impossible and all industry has stopped. We have been turned into beggars. We are humiliated and we are smashed into the ground. We want peace. Peace is possible if pardon and forgiveness is possible but in the meantime and in this situation, Israel is feeding hate and violence in the hearts of our children. When we say no to Israel, we say no to death and we ask Israel to stop feeding our hearts with violence, with hatred of Israel.

To protect Israel is to give Israel the force to accept peace. We are facing a religious war in the Middle East. They are preparing a religious war and such a war is very destructive. This war will not stop in the Middle East; it will also happen here. Israel now should use its force to achieve peace, otherwise, the weapons of Israel will cause her own destruction. Force must lead Israel to peace, not to more wars. War will not achieve peace. The way to peace is peace.

A state should be recognised at a certain point. From 1948 to the present, our state has no borders. It is the only country state without borders recognised by the whole world. They refused to discuss borders. They refused to end the state of war. Europe and America were partners in this war and all the crimes committed against us, because they set up Israel in Palestine. People were gathered from more than 20 countries and as a result, our diaspora, our nation, was sent to 20 countries. We are working to lobby the committee on the need for a tribunal, a court, which would find out the truth. We hope to create in your hearts a crisis of conscience that at a certain time in history you were partners of those who committed all these crimes against us. Please forgive me but I have spoken the truth. I thank the committee.

I am conscious of the time constraints on the delegation who must attend another meeting at 4 p.m.

Ms Marie Crawley

That meeting with the Minister has been cancelled.

Mr. Constantine Dabbagh

I will not repeat what has been said but I will start from where his grace, the archbishop, concluded. We want to live as Palestinians and for the two-state recognition to be applied in accordance with UN resolutions. This would mean that the Palestinian state would have the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, lands which were occupied in 1967. We appreciate very much the world-wide support for justice but unfortunately, this comes to an end when it comes to the rights of the Palestinians and the vetoes which are imposed by the United States and other governments. We are Christians from Gaza and we have no problem. The document circulated to us states that the local de facto government is exploiting the situation and that we are having difficulties. The difficulties we are encountering are mainly as a result of the occupation of Gaza. The occupation within Gaza has ceased but we are cordoned off and are living in a big prison, as referred to by other speakers. A population of 1.5 million people includes 2,000 Christians but we are part and parcel of this community. We have no problem with our Muslim compatriots but it is true that the extremists are growing and I repeat the warning on this point from Monsignor Musallam. This is as a result of the occupation, the oppression and humiliation and the poverty. These factors are making more people side with the extremists and this is what we want to stop. This will only happen with the support and help of the international community and the United States in particular. The Irish are people of peace and we depend on having Ireland's vote to put some pressure on Israel to implement the resolutions which are in favour of the two-state solution. I am sure the committee members will have questions to raise about conditions in Gaza and I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak at this meeting.

This committee has a continuing interest in the situation although we are unable to achieve all the things the delegation might like to have achieved. We visited America during the summer and we put the case very strongly. We looked for support for the two-state solution. The delegation is aware that those talks are currently suspended but we are following the situation very closely. There are many friends of Ireland in the United States. The committee has visited the region on two occasions and we have seen what the delegates have described. The committee has issued brief reports on the situation and I will give the delegation a copy of those reports. I reassure the delegates about this committee's interest in the situation. We want what the archbishop wants; we want peace with security and the development of children of all kinds there.

H. E. Archbishop Theodosius Hanna

We would like to present the Chairman with a gift to remember this visit. It is a souvenir from Jerusalem. We very much appreciate the members of the committee meeting us today and the fact that the committee always shows such interest in Palestine.

I welcome the delegation. I wish to take this opportunity to state where I stand on these matters. Having lived through the experiences of Northern Ireland where I saw hatred and discrimination gain nothing, where I saw people who could not sit in the same room together now sharing power, I believe there are lessons to be learned by everybody. It is a great example of tolerance, understanding and religious freedom. I condemn all forms of violence, discrimination and persecution regardless of its source. In these situations we must always bring balance. If we were to adopt an attitude that we would not speak to one side or the other, we would never have solved our problem. Continued support for the talks is needed now. There will be breakdowns, but it is important for politicians of all description to stick to that formula and keep people talking, which was the solution to our problem.

At times it can be very difficult and I acknowledge there is intolerance in many areas. I am fearful of the lack of tolerance in some Islamic countries for Christians. Nobody should be discriminated against because of his or her religious beliefs regardless of what those religious beliefs are. In parts of the world Christians are wrongly being persecuted because of their religious beliefs and are subject to laws that contrary to their own personal beliefs. I would like to think that in this country we live in a society where we tolerate all religious beliefs and members of all political parties would stand together in that one true belief.

I hope I live to see the day when the talks will bear fruit and we will reach a two-state solution. In the meantime adherence to international law is important and that applies to Israel as it applies to others. It equally places an obligation on organisations such as Hamas to stop violence against anybody. If we can bring balance to our discussions at all times, we have a greater chance of winning over the middle ground to our way of thinking and achieve peace. I wish the witnesses success and assure them that my party will continue to support talks to bring about a peaceful solution. The witnesses are welcome to return to us at any time if they feel we can assist in any way to bring about a peaceful solution.

I thank the three guest speakers for their contributions. I note the passion and commitment with which they delivered those contributions. As the archbishop said, we have a very good record in our belief in and work for democracy. A number of us have visited the Middle East twice in the past three years. We went to the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, and saw at first hand the problems to which the archbishop referred. I am concerned about the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and particularly at how the people in Gaza are treated and the disproportionate use of violence in the recent trouble in Gaza. The monsignor referred to the lack of industry there, and we saw factories and schools wiped out. I am very concerned that they have not been allowed to bring in the material to repair houses especially coming into the winter time. We are also concerned at violence from any source, including the rockets attacking southern Israel.

We learned from our experience in Ireland that what I would refer to as the politics of the last atrocity and reacting to the last serious atrocity does not get one very far. While it took us a long time to get around to it in our own country, we had to find a solution to the problems. When people sit back and look they might find a solution - in our case the two sovereign governments decided that they should find a solution for the communities within Northern Ireland. The monsignor referred to a religious war, but the trouble in Northern Ireland was not in my view a religious war but rather that one side wanted union with Britain and the other side wanted union with Ireland. However, religion provided a convenient label for each side and it was often seen as a war between Catholics and Protestants.

The two communities decided they would sit down together and talk. We were very fortunate that the President of the United States sent Senator George Mitchell here. He had great patience and sat down with all sides, knocked heads together and got people to sit around a table and talk. Once they sat down and talked to each other it was amazing how they found they had so much common ground and were able to come up with a solution. Thankfully 12 years have now passed since the Good Friday Agreement was signed and we have peace on the island that we have not had for centuries and our relationship with Britain has never been better. By sitting around the table and looking for a solution based on peace and justice for everybody, we were able to move forward. I have no doubt that will happen in the Middle East.

The monsignor referred to the Members of Parliament that are using their positions here. I think that happens. Successive Governments have worked hard to contribute in whatever way they can to the finding of a peaceful settlement. They have condemned atrocities that have happened. The current Government is working as an individual Government and in harmony with its colleagues in the European Union.

I would like to ask a question about Bethlehem University, which we have visited. What sort of support might the university get in the Middle East, perhaps from the Israeli Government? What sort of further support does it need from outside? There is a very active branch of Bethlehem University supporters in Dublin. I understand the delegates will meet them tomorrow. The case of a student, Berlanty Azzam, who was not allowed to attend university during the last three months before she was entitled to get her degree, received a great deal of publicity in this country. Ms Azzam was supported by Members of Parliament and the Minister here.

I do no think any of the various reports one reads about what is happening in Palestine compares with the moving and graphic account we have been given today of what life is really like for the Christian community there. There is a terrible irony and sadness in the manner in which all religions have been used, abused and misused by people on all sides of this dispute, particularly for political purposes. I refer, for example, to the way extremists have honed in on religion and used it. Those who pay the price are the ordinary people living in Palestine and other countries. As a Catholic, I believe our common humanity is at the core of every religion and non-religion. Regardless of whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic or atheist, etc., we share a common humanity. Respect for the individual is at the core of that. The principle of "live and let live" seems to have been forgotten.

We should take heart from certain good examples from the history of this country and other countries. I refer, for example, to the steps that were taken to bring about collapse of the Berlin Wall and to address racial discrimination in the United States. As an eternal optimist, I believe peace can come, but it must be accompanied by justice. I know there is some dialogue with Jewish people who are concerned about what is happening. They appreciate that their religion is being abused in this dispute. Is there dialogue between the delegates and some Jewish people?

I welcome our distinguished guests. As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan said, it is electrifying to hear the passionate tones of a person who has lived through the horrible experience of barbarity being visited by one group of human beings on another. I do not doubt that the obscenely named Operation Cast Lead was barbarous and caused a series of war crimes to be committed by the state of Israel and the Israeli army.

As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan said, it is important that we recognise and honour those Jewish Israeli citizens, and those Jewish people from all over the world, who have shown immense moral courage and authority by standing out against what is happening. They understand that what is happening is a betrayal of the ethical values of Judaism, just as some of the acts of the extremists on the Islamic side are betrayals of the core beliefs of their religion.

I would like to ask a couple of questions. I am aware that we have forwarded to our friends copies of our documents about the visit to the United States. We are keen to demonstrate to them that we have attempted to raise these issues in civilised discourse. Would it be possible also to send them copies of our reports on our discussions on the Goldstone report and our visit to the villages of Susya and At-Tuwani? That would indicate-----

I have the reports on the visits here now.

Perhaps the other reports could be sent on. It is important that our guests should know that these matters have been seriously discussed and that the overwhelming view of this committee is one of support for human rights. It is not primarily a question of Palestinian rights, Israeli, Jewish rights, Muslim rights, gay rights or any other kind of rights - it is a question of human rights that extend to cover all people who are oppressed. That is my first suggestion.

We have received various missives, the intention of which is to skew the debate. Some of them raise questions and contain a grain of truth. I know the Middle East well. For 30 years, I spent several months of the year in the city of Jerusalem. I am aware that the serious and catastrophic decline in the Christian population of Bethlehem, for example, is not entirely the responsibility of the Israeli state. While I do not doubt that there was some bullying on the part of the Muslim community, I do not think it was the principal element in this regard. These matters can be used as a distraction. It is important for us to be honest. The situation of the Christian minority in that area is extremely delicate. The cynical transfer of properties by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem has not helped the situation. The church in question has sold some properties. Perhaps the archbishop will comment on that. I am not manufacturing what I am saying - I am saying what is in the newspapers in Jerusalem all the time. I was there when these things were done. Circumstances are very difficult for such reasons.

I would like to refer briefly to another matter before I have to leave. I see on the screen that a debate on this country's delicate financial situation, to which our guests referred, is beginning in the Seanad Chamber. I want to listen to what is being said during the debate and contribute to it. Some time ago, Colonel Desmond Travers, who was involved in the compilation of the Goldstone report, made a useful presentation at a meeting of this committee. I am proud to say Colonel Travers bore witness with absolute impartiality and answered all the questions he was asked. Some members of this committee subjected him to intense questioning. Having re-read the report recently, I can say he dealt with every situation honestly.

I would like our visitors to be aware of the work of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, which is based at NUI Galway. It is one of the leading centres for human rights in the world and is led by Professor William Schabas. I presided over an event at the centre last weekend, at which a major award was presented to Shawan Jabarin, who is Amnesty International's first prisoner of conscience from the Palestinian people. The Israeli authorities did not allow him to join us at the event because they believe Al-Haq is a terrorist organisation. I invite our visitors to express their views on whether Al-Haq is a terrorist organisation. I understand that the Israeli ambassador has made comments to the same effect.

I would also like to hear our guests' views on the truth or otherwise of the provenance of the valuable information contained in a document on the Israel-Hamas ceasefire of 19 June to 4 November 2008. The pretext used by the Israeli Government for the launching of Operation Cast Lead was Hamas rocket attacks into Israel. I attempted to place on record what I understood to be the fact that these attacks had ceased as a result of the Egyptian brokered peace. This view was contradicted by one of the members and Israeli sources. Can each and everyone of the witnesses state that this is the truth and the rockets ceased? I ask that we be told the truth. It is unlikely that Monsignor Musallam, Archbishop Hanna, Mr. Dabbagh and Mr. Morrison would all lie in unison. Will they indicate if the rockets had stopped before the Israeli operation? Did the Israeli Government use a pretext for its operation? Is it true that the Israeli Government spokesman acknowledged this on an international television broadcast? I would like to put this matter to bed because it is important that we know that this pretext was inappropriate and not supported by the facts.

Will the delegation outline its views on the Euromed trade agreement? I do not believe in violent measures or academic boycotts but when one has a significant trade agreement to which human rights protocols attached, its human rights ideas are demeaned and rendered meaningless if they are not acted upon or even monitored in circumstances where there are substantial allegations of serious human rights violations. Tragically, it would have been possible to switch off the war very rapidly and achieve a much more satisfactory resolution if economic pressure had been taken on the Euro-Med agreement given that, for example, 80% of Israel's agricultural exports are to the European Union? I will remain as long as possible to listen to proceedings and will read the record to catch up on what I miss. I know how courteous my brothers in the Middle East are and do not wish to appear to be discourteous. However, I need to hear what the Government is saying and try to assess the truth of that also. It is not always easy and I apologise for leaving early.

Deputy Noel Treacy is a Deputy for County Galway in which the university that was mentioned is located.

I am a friend of Professor William Schabas. I warmly welcome our distinguished visitors from Palestine and the Middle East. This is an historic occasion for the Oireachtas and we are deeply grateful to the delegation for its visit. I am very impressed by the passionate account of the outrageous position in which Palestinians find themselves.

For more than four decades, the Houses of the Oireachtas and my party, Fianna Fáil, both in and out of government, have consistently supported the position of the Palestinian people. My former colleague and Ireland's former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the late, great Brian Lenihan Sr., whose son is the current Minister for Finance, was probably the first Minister in the world to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the Palestinian people. He made statements in this Parliament and across the world that Palestinians had a right to a two-state solution. This has been Ireland's consistent position at European and international level. The policies enunciated by the former Minister, Mr. Lenihan Sr., have become the official line of the European Union. The EU's policy found its genesis in the decisions taken and leadership given by Mr. Lenihan Sr. and his colleagues more than four decades ago.

When I was Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, I had the opportunity to visit the Middle East and witness at first hand the outrageous intimidation, discrimination, violence and disgusting behaviour that have been visited on the Palestinian people. Man's inhumanity to man cannot be condoned in the parliament of any sovereign democracy. We stand in solidarity with the delegation and I endorse the comments of my colleagues.

For almost a decade, I had the privilege of working with former Senator George Mitchell during what became known as the strand two talks in Northern Ireland. Those were dark and difficult days in Northern Ireland. The policy of the Republic has always been that we would only solve problems in Northern Ireland through round-table talks involving all parties. This approach allowed trust to be developed, dialogue to be explored and consensual conclusions and decisions to be reached.

I was privileged to represent my country at European level as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. My ministerial colleagues and others consistently raised the position of the Palestinian people at European Council meetings. We worked closely with the former High Representative, Mr. Javier Solana, who was repeatedly sent on missions to negotiate with the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. We have since worked closely and successfully with High Representative Baroness Ashton. We are also pleased that the United States, under President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, is taking a renewed interest in the Middle East. The appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East was a positive development.

Resolving the problems of the Middle East will require all parties to adopt a new mindset. Violence must be eliminated to create new opportunities to talk. The Arab League and Middle East business forum, the European Union and the United States have a key role to play in this regard. Working in tandem with the representatives of the Palestinian people and the Israeli Government, they will be able to bring finality and give Palestinians the dignity, opportunities and human rights to which they and everyone else are entitled. We will work assiduously to try to achieve this objective, taking into account the historical complexities of the Middle East and the unjustifiable political opaqueness that is virtually impossible to penetrate.

I welcome our distinguished guests and thank them for their impressive presentation. Palestinians have endured horrific human rights violations and restrictions. It difficult to understand that people are not allowed to go about their daily business of attending school or workplace or visiting hospitals or their families. I do not propose to repeat what other speakers have said. I concur with my colleagues and welcome this opportunity to raise public awareness and champion the cause of Palestine. Peace and freedom will be achieved through dialogue. I strongly support the work of the joint committee to support Palestinians in this time of need and raise public awareness of their predicament.

I thank Sadaka, the Ireland Palestine Alliance, for facilitating the visit of the delegation to engage in this important dialogue. The organisation has given the Oireachtas friends of Palestine very clear, factual and well researched information. As Deputy Barrett noted, it has also provided a balanced view. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to peace and dialogue. While we hear a great deal about the need for peace and what needs to be done to achieve it, peace will not be secured without justice. That must be the key in terms of delivering any fair and just solution to the Palestinians.

There must be justice. One only has to look at the map of Sadaka from 1946 to 2000 that is included in the presentation. There is no justice in what is shown on that map. It encapsulates everything that needs to be said. We will only have justice when the international community stands up for justice by standing up to Israel. Unfortunately, the international community has failed to do that. I am proud to say that the Irish have taken a lead and set an example. We need to go further. In many ways we lead the campaign for the international community as a whole to stand up to the Israelis.

I welcome the delegation and thank its members for the presentation. I apologise for being late. I hope to be part of the flotilla that will go to Gaza once again in the new year. I wish the delegation members the best of luck.

Like everyone else, I welcome the delegation. I hope those who are here will forgive me if I do not adopt what is a traditional approach by so many members of this committee, which is to basically try to ingratiate themselves with whoever happen to be the guests present. Like everyone else-----

I take exception to that remark.

I would like to see a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Deputy Shatter should withdraw that remark.

I am entitled to express my views.

Yes, but not to interpret our sincerity.

I am entitled to express a view. People are entitled to disagree with me but I am entitled to express a view.

Deputy Shatter is saying we are sycophantic towards visitors. We are no such thing. We are democratically elected people with a personal and collective view that we are proud to promote.

I stand over everything I said. I do not care who appears before the committee.

I did not interrupt anyone.

Deputy Shatter's comments reflect more on himself than on the rest of us.

I did not interrupt anyone.

The position has been made clear.

The difficulty is that this committee has a large number of similar hearings. It is unfair to those who visit with this committee to pretend that it has any more influence than it has in reality. Essentially, we discuss issues. Unfortunately, we have no decision-making remit that is of any particular relevance to solving problems. Frequently, the committee is simply a talking shop.

Speak for yourself.

Like many others who have spoken I would like to see a two-state solution and an end to the conflict. I would also like to see an independent Palestinian state living side by side with the state of Israel, both states at peace with each other, not feeling threatened by each other and all communities on both sides feeling there is a future that does not involve war, violence, death or destruction. The difficultly is that it is very easy to talk about that in platitudes.

I have a difficulty with the presentation. Presentations to the committee would better inform members of the committee, in so far as we need to be informed, when the realities are addressed from a perspective that might contribute to achieving the objective I described. I find it extraordinary that a group such as this should make a presentation to the committee on the plight confronting Christians on the West Bank and Gaza and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without any particular mention or emphasis on the substantial difficulties that fundamentalism in the Muslim world has created, of the major difficulties in Gaza created by Hamas and of the significant problems for the Christian community posed by extremists within Gaza. There was one reference to the Salafiya group. It is my understanding that there have been a number of incidents in Gaza. When I met President Abbas he detailed many deaths that occurred in Gaza in the context of the Christian community. Fr. Musallam commented on one of the events, which was an attack and looting on the Latin Catholic church in Gaza and a nearby school run by nuns in 2007. From my knowledge of having visited Gaza, pressure has been put on the Christian community. There has been a series of attempts to impose a fundamentalist Muslim perspective on the workings in Gaza.

In the context of achieving peace, it is important that we are honest about these things. Hamas has been, is and continues to be opposed to a two-State solution. Hamas is and continues to be in substantial disagreement with Fatah and with the members of the Palestinian Authority. I am open to correction but I think I am right in saying that Mr. Dabbagh - please forgive me if I mispronounce the name - has been involved in negotiations at some point to try to resolve difficulties between Fatah and Hamas. Members of the Palestinian Authority, including President Abbas, have been threatened with death and have been referred to as traitors for engaging in talks to achieve a two-state solution. That is a reality of the difficulty of the complex situation that exists. If I am wrong in that, a member of the delegation might explain it to me, but as far as I am aware President Abbas has not been able to visit Gaza since the conflict involving Israel escalated. He cannot visit Gaza because he fears for his life. When I visited Gaza with members of own party, we were able to set foot in Gaza but President Abbas was not. That indicates that the difficulties are a lot more complex than what we are being presented with by the delegation. I do not say that is a reason why there should be continuing conflict but it is important to acknowledge the complexity of the problems.

On this committee on occasion it is perceived that there are no difficulties on the Palestinian side, all the difficulties are on the Israeli side. There is no doubt that Israelis have made grievous errors in dealing with the peace process. Events have occurred that should not have occurred. The same can be said on the Palestinian side. In the context of dealing with where we go from here, I would be interested in knowing the views on whether there is going to be a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. How does one see that occurring? Would the members of the delegation accept and acknowledge that if there is to be a viable peace process, it is important that the Palestinians are united in their approach to it?

In the context of the delegation's critique of the Israelis, would the members acknowledge that the difficulty affecting Christian communities across the Middle East derives from fundamentalist Muslim ideology? Perhaps they can explain what I understand to be the case, that in the context of the Middle East, from all official census figures that are available, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown? It has grown fourfold, from 34,000 in 1948 to 130,000 in 2005. Under pressure in Lebanon, the Christian population is losing numbers. Under pressure in other parts of the Middle East we have seen terrible atrocities, more recently in Iraq to which no reference is made. I am merely asking the delegates to provide some balance in this discussion. I would like to see the conflict brought to an end but I would like to see discussions at meetings of this committee based on factual reality.

I have two final points. Senator Norris has left us. He has been singing the same song in this committee for some time. There is absolutely no doubt, irrespective of the rights or wrongs of what occurred during the Gaza conflict, that rockets were being fired by Hamas into Israel continuously for several years. There was a gap in the firing and it recommenced and continued for eight days prior to that conflict. Do those present believe rocket fire into Israel contributes to peace, and that rockets fired into Israel since the conflict contributed peace?

Sadaka is entitled to promote any political view it wishes but members of this committee should be aware that some of Sadaka's publications, particularly the history given in them, are absolutely inaccurate and dishonestly presented. I will give one very simple example. In that context, I ask Sadaka not to pretend to be an organisation presenting itself before this committee that does not have a particular narrative that it is anxious to have dealt with. I refer simply to two sentences in one of the documents given to us. The document says: "Unless US and EU force Israel to end occupation, negotiations are futile." Hamas does not want negotiations in the first place. In Sadaka's executive summary, it is stated that "In June 1967, Israel took over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza by force, contrary to Article 2.4 of the UN Charter." The document complains that the international community does not impose sanctions on Israel, stating: "Contrast that with the international community's response when Iraq took over Kuwait by force in August 1990." What it does not say is that the 1967 war occurred because the Israeli state was facing imminent attack and destruction by Arab states which encircled it and were bent on its destruction.

What Sadaka does not say and what members of this committee do not seem to understand, despite all the hearings, was that Gaza, from 1948 to 1967, was occupied by Egypt and that the West Bank was occupied by Jordan. For almost 20 years, a Palestinian state could at least have been founded on those two locations based on whatever further discussions would have been necessary to formulate and finalise that state. However, that is never discussed. The difference is that, when Iraq took over Kuwait, the former was not under any threat of attack from the latter; Iraq simply invaded Kuwait to take over the oil fields. There was no imminent prospect of the destruction of the Iraqi state by Kuwait. The analogy is not accurate and members of this committee should not necessarily take verbatim publications by a group that is absolutely entitled to campaign as it chooses but which should not present a selective view of history to distort the reality of the complexity of the issues that need to be addressed to bring about true peace in the region.

I thank Deputy Shatter. I am somewhat surprised that he is not really aware that, in Northern Ireland, it was talking that stopped the bombing and the bullets. One will not solve the problems on either side with bombs, bullets or insults. These are to be left aside and outside. Members of this committee appreciate that and are prepared to listen to different groups as they appear. The comments the Deputy made at the outset about members ingratiating themselves with witnesses of different kinds were grossly inaccurate and inappropriate. They should have been withdrawn.

Comments about Senator Norris singing the same song should be withdrawn.

Senator Norris knows more about the conflict than most Irish people.

That said, perhaps Archbishop Hanna would like to respond.

H. E. Archbishop Theodosius Hanna

As a church person, a man of religion, I can only respond to what was said to me in respectful terms. Deputy Shatter's speech was full of inaccuracies and non-factual statements. We are not here as politicians; we are men of spirituality and are talking about peace. I am really shocked by what the Deputy said. At one point, I believed the Deputy speaking was the Israeli ambassador, not an Irish parliamentarian. I urge the Deputy to check his facts. Father Manuel will comment a little more on the detail of what the Deputy said. I will make some general comments about some of the other questions asked. With regard to religious extremism and segregation, we are absolutely against any kind of religious fundamentalism, be it Jewish, Muslim or Christian. I and others from the Christian community and Muslim mosques, and even some Jewish people, work together against fundamentalism. We believe these different religions can work together to serve humanity.

The actions of those who use religion for violent purposes reflect on themselves and have nothing to do with religion. If there are people who are using Islam or Christianity to urge others to kill and make war, it is not the fault of the religion. The problem in Palestine has nothing to do with religion – it is not a religious issue. It is not a conflict of Christians, Muslims and Jewish people. It is a conflict between those who are the holders of a rightful cause and those who took away that right by military might. Palestinian people as a whole, including Christians and Muslims, have said repeatedly that what they want is peace. We want two states that live together in peace. However, the reality on the ground is that we are extremely far away from that goal because Israel does not want peace.

There may be some Palestinian extremists who use religion in the wrong way. We stand against terrorism or violence from wherever it comes. Israel, a state recognised by the United Nations, has killed Palestine as a state. There may be a few people in Palestine who make mistakes but Israel, has as a state policy, a violent attitude towards the Palestinians.

Deputy Shatter's comments do not help Israel but damage it. Just like we would tell someone we care about, if he really cares about Israel, he would tell it when it is wrong. When one tells a killer to continue killing, it does not help the killer. If he is a true friend of Israel, he would tell it to stop its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Palestinians should unite and bury their differences. The divisions among the Palestinians are also the fault of those who support Israel. There are sources who are feeding this division but I will not expand on this because today's meeting is about the occupation of Palestinian territories which must end.

Monsignor Manuel Musallam

I thank the committee. We are looking for people with the conviction to search for the truth for both Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinians are not terrorists. The big lie behind the Six Day War in 1967 is that Israel was threatened by the Arab countries and was, therefore, a preventive action. In those six days Israel destroyed whole Arab armies. It was unable to destroy Hizbollah in Lebanon in 33 days in 2006, Abu Ammar – Yasser Arafat – in 83 days in Lebanon in 1982 and Gaza over 22 days in 2009. Against all this, violence has been refused by us. All we ask Israel is to respect us and not treat us like animals.

We also ask parliamentarians and governments across the world not to give us food aid. We do not need cookies from Israel. We do not even need to trade with Israel. All we need is to be protected. We are suffering a war that we have endured for more than 60 years.

If we have Hamas, then Israel has Sharon, Avigdor Lieberman, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and others. We do not agree with any of these fanatic persons on either side. Does Deputy Shatter expect us as Palestinians to protect those who occupy us? How can I protect an army that has occupied us for more than 60 years?

The US ambassador to the UK, Mr. Louis Susman, stated:

It is easy for the Government of Israel to cry aloud about the thousands of rockets aimed at them but detailed examination shows these are inaccurate, ineffective ordnance that has been responsible for a few deaths and some minor property damage, sent by people who are impoverished, living under oppression, under siege, denied access to food, water and basic primary health care. These are a people against whom the retribution by Israel has been so severe that is has been compared to atrocities carried out by Hitler and his elite with thousands of mainly civilians murdered by an arrogant IDF which also systematically went about the destruction of the people's homes, properties and infrastructure.

As for the church, Christianity in the region has been destroyed not by Muslims but by Israel. Israel destroyed the church of Palestine and the church of Jerusalem beginning in 1948. It, not Muslims, has sent Christians in the region into a diaspora.

In Gaza I saw how the Israeli army targeted the Christian school there. Five Hamas Ministers visited the school after it was attacked and promised they would repair the damage. Someone intended to create havoc in the area, particularly when Hamas and Fatah were clashing. When I visited the school, a Hamas Minister, a Muslim, picked up the Holy Bible thrown on the ground, kissed it and put it back on the altar. He said Muslims were forbidden to do such things to the Bible. Hamas paid more than $122,000 to repair all the damage caused. Afterwards I met the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. When he embraced me he said this, and we believed it. He said: "Go to your family, but be assured that Hamas will employ weapons against Muslims to protect Christians in Gaza." This is the reality. Christians in Palestine are not suffering persecution, because we are not considered to be a religious community, but rather the people of Palestine. We have the same rights and the same obligations.

We have seen that many Christians have been killed in Iraq, but millions of Muslims were killed there, too, because of the war. Islamic fundamentalism which we studied in the last synod of the Roman Catholic Church came about because of the occupation of Palestine and the different wars we have suffered. It is a fact that there is fundamentalism in Palestine, yet if the occupation continues it will explode and destroy the world, not just us.

As I have told the committee, we do not have anything against Israelis. I am an old priest, aged 72, yet I have never had the opportunity to speak to a Jewish family, because all the time we are facing police and soldiers with big sticks and everything else. All we can see is this army. Israel deserves to have other leaders. It deserves a different Administration to lead her towards peace, not Netanyahu, Sharon or these other people who are warlike, with blood on their hands. They are soldiers, and Israel needs to be led by people who love art and life and who speak peace, not these people. When we cry in your faces and in the face of Israel, we want to stop war and gain peace. We do not want to keep Israel in a state of war. As I have said the spirit of Israel should lead her towards peace. Otherwise, and listen carefully to me, the force of Israel, the atomic bomb, the F-35 fighter planes, etc., if it cannot achieve peace now, will destroy Israel.

Force cannot bring peace. Only peace can bring about peace. War and justice cannot go together. Justice and peace and truth can go together. Truth, justice, peace, development and forgiveness can go together, but not war and the humiliation of others.

If the committee is concerned for us Christians in Palestine, I will use the same words as I did at the end of the clash between Fatah and Hamas, when I was deemed to be the hero of Gaza at the time. They ask me, "Do you fear Hamas, as a Christian?". I pointed out the reality to them, which they needed to understand because it was the basic truth. I said:

Hamas should fear me, because all these Muslims have their children in our hands. We are the Palestinian people. Fear not for us, but look at what Israel has done, and how many villages it has destroyed, how many innocents it has killed and how many war crimes have been committed against Palestinians.

In conclusion, I emphasise that we love the Israelis, but we hate their philosophy of science. However, we love and admire the Israelis, the Jews. We do not want to co-exist but rather to live with them, to exist and be one with them, to build our country with them. I do not want to kill Israelis, rather I want them to help me to help them build our country.

However, we have spoken to Israel for more than 18 years and the result has been zero. We have signed agreements here and there at various times and then when there is a change in the Government of Israel we have to start again from the beginning. We ask for our life and to be given back our Jerusalem, to be given our state and for enough water to drink. We want to be given more opportunity to reach Jerusalem. I have not seen Jerusalem since 1990. If I go to Jerusalem, I need a permit to come from Israel to live in my house, and it is not being given to me. To exit from the West Bank to Jordan I need another co-ordination certificate and this is being been refused to me every time.

We do not want to boycott Israel or kill Israelis. President Mahmoud Abbas, our leader, in his last speech said that in five years not one shot had been fired against Israel in the West Bank. However, Israel is telling lie upon lie as regards the Palestinians. We want to see an end to this occupation, and please do not ask us to protect those who are occupying our territory.

I thank the monsignor, and invite Mr. Dabbagh to briefly say a few words.

Mr. Constantine Dabbagh

I have just two comments. Senator Norris asked whether El Jab'a is a terrorist organisation. Israel, in principle, is against all human rights centres and El Jab'a is one of the basic human rights centres in the West Bank. As proof of this it is being supported by many organisations from the international community, and this shows it is not a terrorist organisation.

I want to respond to Deputy Shatter, also, on Hamas. His Grace, Monsignor Musallam, has mentioned that as Christians in Gaza we are part and parcel of the community. We are not just a community but part and parcel of the whole society. This does not mean that we have not encountered any difficulties. Such difficulties come from those extremists, who derive their raison d’être, unfortunately, from the policies of the west. They are even very dangerous to Hamas, which is giving protection to the Christians, whenever it is needed. I experienced an attack a year and a half ago, and this was exploited by the Israeli newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, which claimed that a Christian leader was attacked and so on, but this was not true. It was something that could happen to any person and I told the newspaper that it could have happened to a Christian, a Muslim, a leader or someone who is not a leader. On the other hand, we hate to see rockets being launched from Gaza, but committee members should consider the state of Israel with its arsenal of weapons and the destruction which is being inflicted on Gaza. I would like them to come to Gaza again and witness the daily incursions over the border between Gaza and Israel. These daily incursions are led by tanks and bulldozers. The Israelis keep a buffer zone of between 300 metres and 500 metres along a 45 km strip of the border with Gaza. A big portion of the strip is being buffered by Israel. They shoot at any peasant who tends to his land.

We claim we wanted a two state solution, as did Israel and Deputy Shatter as well. What state do they want us to accept? Do they want us to have cantons here and there and call them viable? The state of Palestine next to the state of Israel should be in compliance with UN resolutions, which means that Israel should evacuate Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to give Palestinians the opportunity to establish our state, in order to have security for Israel and for us Palestinians as well. We are insecure and we must have this security. Now we are weak but we are strong with our determination to be free. In spite of all the things happening now, Israel is not in Gaza. We are suffering from the siege. People cannot travel for medical treatment, for education, for normal business. I could not get into the West Bank or Jerusalem to attend meetings or prayers. A number of Christians in Gaza are given permits to go there at Christmas time and for the New Year, but many others are deprived. My children are under 35 years and they could not go. Are they not allowed to go to church until they are 35 and older? This is unfair. Muslims are deprived completely and this creates another struggle between Christians and Muslims. Muslims see a few hundred of us getting out at Christmas, but they are not allowed to get out to pray in Jerusalem.

Inhuman conditions are being applied by Israel on the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. This should be stopped but it will not happen unless the international community brings a just peace, ends the occupation and allows for the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the Israeli state in accordance with UN resolutions.

Monsignor Manuel Musallam

And remove the settlements.

Mr. Constantine Dabbagh

Of course. The expropriation of land and so on must stop. Thank you.

Ms Marie Crawley

I would like to make a brief comment on behalf of Sadaka. I would like to express concern over Deputy Barrett's comment that the international community and the negotiations need to be approached with balance. This is not a balanced situation. This is not a conflict of equals. This is an occupation. We have an occupier and we have an occupied people. We have an oppressor and we have an oppressed people. We have a powerful people and we have a powerless people. To approach that situation with balance is to side with the occupier. The international community does not need to approach the situation with a sense of balance, but needs to exert pressure on the state of Israel until such time as it complies with international law and ends the occupation.

I thank committee members for the contributions on this discussion. I also thank the delegation for visiting us today and for making a very informative presentation. Monsignor Musallam said that if we strive for peace, we are supporting Israel and we are supporting Palestine. I hope our discussions have helped in some way to throw some light on the truth. The committee is seeking peace and equal rights and development. We could go into all the other issues because we are aware of them. I will give witnesses a copy of our reports and they will see we have been there and seen the situation. Mr. John Ging is due to appear before the committee tomorrow, and he has been with us previously. Colonel Travers and others have been with us. We want a solution, just as the witnesses want a solution. We would like to thank them for expressing their opinions so sincerely and with great Christian charity. These are the views that have to succeed at the end of the day, and we hope that will be the case.

The joint committee went into private session at 5.10 p.m. and adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Thursday, 25 November 2010.