I thank the Seanad for inviting me to make a statement on Palestine on behalf of the Government. Last week, we all watched the news reports from Gaza with a sense of shock and despair. Who could fail to be moved by images of despairing families grieving for the loss of loved ones and of individuals dealing with horrific and life-changing injuries? Over the course of six weeks of protests in Gaza, beginning on 30 March, there have been reports of protestors being targeted by live fire with tragic consequences. On 14 May, the highest casualty toll in the Gaza Strip in a single day since 2014 was recorded. The UN reports that a total of 102 Palestinians, including 12 children, have been killed in the course of the demonstrations since 30 March. These 102 lives were lost primarily as a result of live fire from the Israeli Defence Forces guarding the border fence between Israel and Gaza. The UN reports also that the cumulative number of injured persons has exceeded 12,600, of whom 55% have been hospitalised.
Particularly worrying has been the high percentage of those killed and injured by live ammunition, which points to the excessive use of force and the use of live ammunition as a form of crowd control. The Tánaiste made three public statements on these incidents on 31 March, 9 April and 14 May calling on all sides to show restraint and, in particular, calling on Israeli forces to temper their use of force. Last week, the Taoiseach supported the call of the Secretary General of the UN for an independent international investigation into these events.
At this point, I acknowledge that while the vast majority of the demonstrators over the course of the six weeks of protest were peaceful, there were elements among them who sought to cause trouble. Violence on the part of some protestors is regrettable and the organisers and those in de facto control of Gaza have a clear responsibility to prevent such actions. We recognise that not all those participating in the protest were non-violent. Stones were thrown, Molotov cocktails were hurled and some protestors attempted to breach the border fence when there had been explicit warnings of the consequences of doing so.
There have also been reports that many of those shot were members of Hamas. It is important to reiterate that we recognise Israel's right to protect itself and protect its borders from attack. While acknowledging that right to defend itself and to protect its people, we must also note its obligation to ensure the response to any threat is proportionate. Responding to unarmed protestors with live fire is far from proportionate. Membership of a terrorist group is not in itself a valid reason to use deadly force where the person targeted is unarmed.
I recognise also that it would have been better if children were not allowed to participate in the protest and were kept away from the border fence. However, what struck me as particularly tragic and indicative of the loss of hope in Gaza was the fact that many of the children interviewed by UN agencies as to why they put themselves in harm's way said they were there out of curiosity and boredom. These protests were something to see and do for children with very little stimulation or opportunity to engage in creative activities. Palestine's rapidly growing young population badly needs to see the development of a future democratic, free and tolerant state. More must be done to empower those young children and provide them with greater opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship as well as with some degree of hope. More must also be done to offer the people of Gaza alternative political models, especially when it comes to young people who are so isolated from the outside world and vulnerable to the influence of Hamas.
I must refer to the very troubling reports of health professionals and aid workers being shot during the protests. These professionals were among the first responders at the scene to assist the injured and dying. They were clearly identifiable as health workers. Nevertheless, the WHO has documented that since the start of the protests on 30 March, there have been numerous attacks on health facilities and personnel. One health worker has been killed and 229 have been injured while providing treatment to injured people during the mass demonstrations.
It is also reported that 32 ambulances were damaged. On 15 May, a paramedic was shot and died of a chest injury. The WHO reports that other paramedics were unable to reach him because of heavy firing. This is unacceptable. Hospitals in Gaza are barely able to cope with the serious injuries which have flooded in. In the meantime, the health system must continue to function to serve the needs of the Gazan population. It must continue to provide maternal and child services, for example, and to treat non-communicable diseases. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the professionalism, dedication and, indeed, courage of those working in the health sector in Gaza.
It is imperative to establish the facts of what happened in Gaza last week and in the six weeks leading up to it. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have publicly supported the call of the UN Secretary General for an independent investigation. Last Friday, the Human Rights Council of the UN held a special session on the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem. At this special session, a resolution was passed, which Ireland supported, to set up an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the context of recent protests. The resolution was backed by 29 members of the Human Rights Council, with 14 abstaining and only two voting against it. While Ireland is not currently a member of the Human Rights Council, we made it clear in our national statement at the special session that force must only be used in cases of real and immediate threat to life and only as a last resort when all other methods have failed.
The use of force should also be proportionate to the threat posed. We strongly supported the call of the UN Secretary General and others for an independent and transparent investigation into these events. I take this opportunity to call on Israel to co-operate with the commission of inquiry to allow it to examine the circumstances fully, including threats and provocations, that led to the loss of so many lives.
Following the tragic events of last week, the Tánaiste summoned the Israeli ambassador to express the Government’s serious concerns and dismay at what had taken place and at the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces. In this way we could ensure that our concerns were conveyed directly to the Israeli Government. Ireland has been providing direct support to the Palestinian people for more than two decades, reflecting a long-standing commitment to the peaceful development of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state. Through the Irish Aid programme, we provide in excess of €10 million annually in development and humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of the most vulnerable Palestinian men, women and children. A key element of this programme is directed towards strengthening the ability of the Palestinian Authority to meet those needs. Enabling Palestinians to build institutions and provide essential public services is critical to laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state. Another important part of our aid is the support we provide to UNRWA, amounting to €4.25 million so far this year, to support the provision of services and assistance to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, including in Gaza. This is an increase of €250,000 on the 2017 allocation.
I have focused today on the situation in Gaza, which is at the forefront of our minds, but Senators should rest assured that the Government remains engaged on all of the issues related to this conflict, including Israeli security concerns, of course, but also the impact that the occupation has on the Palestinian people, including speaking out on settlement construction and on the displacement of Palestinian communities. The Tánaiste continues to engage with both sides, with our EU partners, and with other players such as the US, to ensure that these issues remain high on the international agenda, and to bring Ireland's views on these issues to bear wherever and whenever the way forward is being discussed. We will continue to use every opportunity to engage with both sides and to do what we can to contribute to the resolution of this 70 year old conflict, a resolution that will see the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side within secure borders. This is the only way to ensure that events like those of last week are not repeated.