I welcome the opportunity to address the House on two major crises confronting the international community, namely, the horrendous conflict which has erupted in Gaza and Israel in the past three weeks and the crisis in Ukraine, including the recent downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Our approach to both crises has been to work proactively, not only bilaterally but also with our European Union partners and internationally through the United Nations to urgently address these issues as effectively as possible.
I will begin with the situation in Gaza and Israel. I fully share the horror and revulsion of Senators and very many citizens at the horrendous scenes we have witnessed since the start of the Israeli military operation, Operation Protective Edge, on 8 July. The bare statistics for the conflict make for grim reading. An estimated 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in that period, of whom the vast majority have been civilians. More than 240 children have lost their lives, including eight innocents slaughtered on Monday in what should be any child's sanctuary, the playground. Over 200,000 people have been displaced, more than 10% of the population of Gaza.
The horror has not been confined to the Palestinian side only. Millions of Israelis have been forced to seek shelter on a daily basis from the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel. Some 55 Israelis, of whom the vast majority have been IDF personnel, and one Thai national have died.
This is truly appalling and the Government has throughout the crisis been categorical in condemning both the unacceptably high civilian casualty rate resulting from disproportionate military action on Israel's part, as well as the firing of rockets by Hamas and other militants into Israel. The violence must stop and an immediate ceasefire must be instituted. Everyone, whether Israeli or Palestinian, has the right to live in peace and security and without the threat of indiscriminate violence being visited upon him or her.
In many ways, the real tragedy of the crisis is that we have seen all this horror and death before.
This is the third Gaza conflict in less than six years, following similar cycles of violence in December 2008 to January 2009, and in November 2012. The level of casualties we are now seeing is rapidly approaching that which arose from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 when 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died.
The reasons for this recurrent and utterly futile violence are quite clear. First, there is an unjust blockade imposed on Gaza which has served only to impoverish the territory and its people and promote extremism. Ireland has consistently called in recent years for the blockade to be ended and Gaza's crossings to be opened up to normal human, commercial and humanitarian traffic. The UN Security Council has also called for this in Resolution 1860 and repeated that request only last Sunday.
The blockade of Gaza must be ended. So too must the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and other militants, including Islamic Jihad and also the building of tunnels for the purpose of attacking Israelis. Hamas must renounce violence as a means of achieving its political objectives. While fully accepting that Israel has the right to defend itself against such rocket attacks, this right cannot negate the rights of others. As was clearly set out in our statement to the UN Human Rights Council last week, any use of military force in self-defence must be in accordance with international humanitarian law, and in particular must be both discriminate and proportionate. In view of the unacceptable casualty figures, it is quite clear this has not been the case.
There is no military solution to the problems confronting Gaza. These problems can only be resolved by dialogue, negotiation and genuine involvement. Ultimately, Gaza is merely a symptom of the overall malaise which is the persistent failure to achieve a just and comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, based on the two-state solution.
This has been a major priority for successive Irish Governments and I am determined that Ireland will remain wholeheartedly engaged in the international efforts to address and resolve the underlying issues preventing peace between Israel and the Arab world. Since becoming Minister, I have been active in clearly setting out the Government's position on the crisis and condemning the huge number of civilian casualties resulting from Israeli military actions as well as the rocket attacks on Israel carried out by Hamas and others. This position is fully consistent with the long-standing approach pursued by successive Governments to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That position, and my central message that the violence and terror being inflicted on ordinary civilians is utterly unacceptable and must end was clearly spelled out in Dáil Éireann in a debate on 16 June and in response to Deputies' questions. I have also written directly to a number of Deputies and Senators, some of whom are here, who have been in touch with me to brief them more fully on the Government's efforts to try to resolve the crisis. These efforts will be focussed on a number of fronts, including bilaterally, at EU level and internationally.
Earlier this week, I spoke at length by phone with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the crisis. I praised the Secretary General for the very strong leadership he and the UN are providing and for his articulating so clearly the very great anger and deep sense of anguish people feel about what is happening in Gaza. I condemned the appalling attacks which we have seen on UN and civilian facilities in Gaza and we agreed that both sides have to cease violating international law.
Secretary General Ban briefed me on all the intensive efforts in which he has been engaged in recent days to secure a ceasefire. Regrettably, these efforts have largely fallen on deaf ears to date although the Secretary General was not deterred and believes that some form of extended humanitarian truce would eventually be secured. We agreed that the underlying issues of security and an end to the blockade must be addressed urgently, as soon as a ceasefire is secured. The Secretary General was also fulsome in his praise of the Government's humanitarian efforts to date. I acknowledge the work of my colleague at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, in this regard, and that of his predecessor, Deputy Costello. The current humanitarian situation in Gaza is a catastrophe. Israel's military actions have greatly compounded what was already a very grave situation resulting from the effective closure of Gaza to the outside world.
I and Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, on 21 July authorised the provision of €500,000 in response to the urgent appeal launched by the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, for assistance to cope with the dire humanitarian circumstances on the ground.
On Tuesday of this week, I spoke directly with Pierre Krähenbühl, the director-general of UNRWA, to receive his assessment of the current humanitarian needs within Gaza. Members will be aware that Ireland has long been a steadfast supporter of UNRWA's efforts to provide essential services to the millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the region. Ireland's direct financial support to the Palestinian people currently amounts to over €10 million per annum. Mr. Krähenbühl made clear that UNRWA is virtually at the limits of its ability to cope with the situation now prevailing in Gaza. He warned of the grave dangers of any further military escalation by Israel and I fully agreed with him that international pressure needs to be stepped up on the Israeli Government not to precipitate an even more calamitous and unimaginable human crisis. I expressed my praise and appreciation for UNRWA for all its work and its heroic efforts, both in the current crisis and over many years, in attending to the welfare and needs of the Palestinian population, some 80% of whom within Gaza are dependent on international assistance in order to survive. I reiterated Ireland's full commitment to continue supporting UNRWA's efforts to provide further assistance as may be required. It is clear that once a durable ceasefire has been achieved, a major reconstruction effort will be required to remedy the damage that has been inflicted on Gaza and to renew its basic infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and other vital services.
I have also been active throughout the crisis in addressing urgent appeals on both sides to end the violence. I have met and spoken on several occasions with the Israeli ambassador in order to make clear the very grave concerns and the very grave unhappiness of the Government at the disproportionate military response of Israel to Hamas rocket attacks which has resulted in an unacceptably high level of civilian casualties and I have warned against a further escalation. These very clear messages to Israel to end the violence and to agree to an immediate ceasefire have also been directed, through our ambassador in Tel Aviv, to the Israeli foreign ministry. On my instructions, the Irish ambassador to Israel, Mr. Eamonn McKee, yesterday visited the Israeli foreign ministry. During the course of a lengthy meeting he again made clear the Government's grave concerns and our particular appeal that there should be no escalation of the military campaign under way and the need for all violence to cease with immediate effect.