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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Jul 2018

Vol. 259 No. 9

Situation in Palestine: Statements (Resumed)

I wish to share my time with Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, with each of us taking two minutes.

The Senator was sharing with Senator O'Donnell. She has three minutes of that time left.

We had four minutes each.

I thought Senator O'Donnell was sharing with Senator Kelleher.

Senator Kelleher and Senator Higgins will have four minutes each.

That is ample time. I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, to this House again. Once again I add my voice to those of my colleagues in support of Senator Frances Black's Private Members' Bill, which I was honoured to co-sign and which seeks to prohibit the sale of Israeli settlement goods in Ireland. I also take this opportunity to yet again condemn the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces against unnamed protestors and to condemn the dramatic rise in the use of administrative detention, which would be more commonly known as political internment. We have watched in horror as the events of past weeks, months and years have unfolded on our television screens and tablets. We have seen the most desperate and brutal violations of people's right to protest against injustice, occupation and the taking of the very ground from under them. We have seen the most reprehensible form of crackdown imaginable. Placards, flags and stones are met with tear gas, live gunfire and shelling.

That Israel is fully committed to a two-state solution is very questionable. It is a delusion. Justice and peace for the Palestinian people have not been delivered. The status quo has failed the Palestinian people. It failed the more than 100 Palestinians who were shot dead in recent months and the more than 10,000 Palestinians who were wounded in protests. It has failed the 4.3 million Palestinian refugees who are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. This is no new refugee crisis. It has been happening since 1948. For decades people have been stranded in camps that I saw for myself in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It has gone on for decades, which is why we are seeking a change. How can the Minister continue with a policy that has failed the Palestinian people time and again? Will the Government respond differently to the latest in a decades-long series of violations of international norms in human rights? Is the Minister open to that possibility and will he listen to what we have to say? Through the prism of the European Union, Ireland has significant influence. The European Union is Israel's largest single trading partner and has shown willingness to use trade to positive effect in other instances. I ask that Ireland lead the European Union, not follow it. How will the Minister and Ireland use their influence to effect change at EU level? It must be a positive change to help to bring justice to the Palestinian people. Will the Minister change his mind and listen to us? Will he support Senator Frances Black's Bill, which is a modest proposal but not radical? I disagree with Senator Billy Lawless. I believe the state of Israel is very vulnerable to criticism and that it is very sensitive to public opinion. What we are doing will be noted and looked at. Therefore, Ireland, is in a position to lead. I know that the Minister is a man of conviction. Therefore, I ask him to take seriously what we are asking him to do.

I strongly support the Bill, of which I am very proud to be a co-signer. I will address a couple of issues that have arisen.

Members referred to the analogy of apartheid in South Africa. In that instance the boycott was led by the demand made by the people. The State then took an important action. I looked back at some of the debates that took place at the time and the arguments made were remarkably similar. They were based on our membership of the European economic area and concerns about inadvertent consequences in the areas of commerce and business. The language used was very similar.

Trade is an issue in which I have a strong interest and a record of examining. Let us be clear - the Bill would not impact on international trade law. Eminent opinions have been cited by my colleague Senator Frances Black. World Trade Organization rules apply only to recognised territories. They do not apply to unrecognised territories. Signed EU free trade agreements are very clear - they explicitly exclude goods from settlements. The European Union is clear that it does not have a free trade agreement that encompasses goods from occupied territories. Article 36 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, a core document, is clear - there are exceptions to the collective rules of trade that can be justified on the grounds of public morality, public policy, public security and the protection of health and human life. I do not believe anybody would argue that the situation we have seen unfolding and that has been documented by so many bodies is not dangerous. Action is needed to protect the health and lives of humans, as well as in looking at issues such as public morality and public policy. In that regard, we know that there is a precedent and that Ireland would not be on its own. Germany has exercised the right to provide for exceptions under Article 36. It is standard practice; it is in place for a reason and to be used. I cannot think of a better use for it.

The Minister spoke about not wanting to take a different position from others in Europe or elsewhere in the world. We would be taking the same position taken by the United Nations and many in Europe. We would, however, be taking it seriously and stand by it. That is what is important. If we are passionate and serious about multilateralism, we must let it be our guide. This is not about Ireland being a voice in the wilderness but about it being a voice against the idea that we must bow to big powers. Yes, we must work with others and diplomacy and conversation are crucial. Everybody wants to see Ireland using its soft power through diplomacy, but part of using it is being willing to recognise that it means taking international law seriously. It also means taking appropriate diplomatic measures such as this and recognising that we do not have to wait for Washington to be on board. We will be waiting quite a while for that to happen. We need to have as our guide the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC, which Washington has, unfortunately, chosen to leave. In the legal opinions cited by Senator Frances Black the UNHRC was very clear on our responsibilities. Ireland needs to be serious about this issue. If we want to be taken seriously in the context of the United Nations Security Council, Ireland needs to show that it takes UN rules, mandates and international law very seriously.

This is a thoughtful Bill. It would set as the bar the International Court of Justice, which is the highest arbiter of international law. There are other countries such as West Papua that have sought to be recognised as occupied territories. This Bill might have implications for them in the future also.

I am sharing time with Senators Paul Gavan and Máire Devine, if that is okay.

I commend Senator Frances Black for her dedication to Palestine and bringing forward this Bill. I assure her that she and the Bill have the full support of the Sinn Féin Party in the Seanad.

It is a fact that goods produced are the result of war crimes. We cannot condone this and have to use every instrument available to us. The Bill is an instrument of peace. There is no other way it can be seen. We cannot allow international law to continue to be ignored. We have to stand up and be counted. This is an opportunity for us to be courageous, different and a leader. We can lead the way on this issue. I thank Senator Frances Black for doing so and assure her we will be behind her. I am aware that the Minister has come to the House to convince us differently. I acknowledge the place from which he is coming and the pragmatic things he has done, but I ask him to reconsider and support the Bill in order that there can be unanimity in the House.

At the heart of this issue is the kind of state Israel is. We have heard voices across the Chamber, from all parties, that have acknowledged that Israel is an apartheid state. Any of us who has been there knows this and once one knows it it changes a person. Just as it was completely untenable in the 1980s to say we had to keep talking to the apartheid regime in South Africa and try to work with it, it is the same now - it is completely wrong. Like others, I acknowledge the Minister's sincerity, but the Israeli Government and the Trump regime are the last in which one would place one's trust. I ask the Minister to listen to all Senators across the Chamber. From the right to the left to the centre, we are all together in acknowledging Israel as an apartheid state. We must stand against apartheid.

I will try to do a Senator David Norris and bring a bit of culture to the discussion. I got the following poem from Palestinian women on the recent International Women's Day.

It is called Here We Will Stay. It reads:

In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee,

we shall remain

like a wall upon your chest,

and in your throat

like a shard of glass,

a cactus thorn, and in your eyes

a sandstorm.

We shall remain

a wall upon your chest,

clean dishes in your restaurants,

serve drinks in your bars,

sweep the floors of your kitchens

to snatch a bite for our children

from your blue fangs.

Here we shall stay,

sing our songs,

take to the angry streets,

fill prisons with dignity.

In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee,

we shall remain,

guard the shade of the fig

and olive trees,

ferment rebellion in our children

as yeast in the dough.

Here we shall stay. Go raibh maith agaibh.

The Minister is to conclude by 4.30 p.m.

Thank you. That gives me more time than I thought I would have. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. I also thank Senator Black and the other co-sponsors of the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 for facilitating it. When we debated this issue in January, it was agreed by everybody that we would extend the debate and resume it in July before the summer recess. We are now following through on that commitment to conclude today.

I agree with Senator Bacik that, if anything, those months have reinforced the concerns and frustrations of many over the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process. I would not criticise anybody for that growing frustration and sense of helplessness, as I said earlier, despite the fact that Irish people do feel a real sense of injustice about what is happening to the Palestinian communities. That is very deeply held, not just within political parties but across Ireland generally. We have had a presence in the Middle East for many years, predominantly through our peacekeepers,. of whom we continue to have a significant number today in southern Lebanon and on the Golan Heights, and indeed through NGOs working with Palestinians. We have quite a significant humanitarian programme that I intend increasing significantly. That process is under way.

The politics of this is what we are debating today. There is no doubt that this House is a very powerful voice for the Palestinian cause. We have heard that today and not for the first time. The first time I visited Gaza was with Senator Norris. I remember it very well. It was a very emotionally charged time. The week before we arrived at the Erez Crossing, the first female suicide bomber had blown herself up, killing many young Israeli soldiers and, of course, herself, in an act of desperation and violence. I remember when we came back to Jerusalem the difficulty that Senator Norris found in that his former partner had been thrown into prison, as the Senator might remember.

They are still imprisoning him.

Some of the conversations we had were powerful ones, given Senator Norris's 40 years of experience going back and forth to Israel and to occupied territories. What I would say to Palestinians who are listening is that they have a very powerful voice in this House and in our Lower House as well as across the political parties, my own included, which will continue to speak up and advocate for progress in the Middle East peace process, as will I.

What we are debating tonight, however, is not the commitment to changing an injustice that has obtained for far too long but how we change it and how Ireland is to use its influence on the international stage, at UN level and EU level, to find a way of changing the status quo and moving towards the two-state solution about which so many people are becoming increasingly sceptical because of the expansion of settlements, particularly in the West Bank. I think I have told this House before that we are seeing today the pouring of concrete on land that belongs to somebody else and is subject to a negotiated solution that will result in two states, while one of those states is becoming increasingly unviable because of the relentless expansion of settlements. Let there be no doubt about our concern about that, our calling it out for what it is, which is illegal activity in an occupied land towards which Israel has a responsibility and on which responsibility it is not following through in a manner consistent with international law. The issue and injustice are clear.

My problem is that the nature of the proposal we are debating today, given the current politics of the Middle East, is unlikely to contribute to changing that in the short or medium term, unless something happens on the back of this Bill being passed that I am not expecting. I am honestly saying that, having spent a lot of time in New York, Washington and in the parts of the Middle East to which I referred, and having spoken to some of the key people who have been named in this debate today. I have got to know them and have disagreed with them on many issues in this perspective, such as the status of Jerusalem, expanding settlements or the need to support UNWRA financially because millions of Palestinians are relying on that UN body for basic healthcare, food demands and so on. We are working, as I say, to try to influence outcomes.

I remember very well being in New York at the UN General Assembly last September and meeting the Palestinian delegation there. Minister al-Maliki, whom I have got to know very well and whom I respect, and the Palestinian Prime Minister had just met the US President and there was a sense of optimism that perhaps we were moving towards a new initiative that Palestinians could buy into as well as Israelis. Unfortunately, that optimism disappeared in the months that followed, especially in the context of statements that were made in respect of Jerusalem and, subsequently, the tragedies we have seen on the Gaza border and the continuing expansion of settlements. My point is that through that period of negativity, Ireland has been working away, trying to find ways of making things happen through persuasion, things that were not being considered a year ago and that are being considered now.

It is not just about humanitarian relief because this has to be about something bigger than that in terms of political change. It is also about trying to find a way of creating a context for a new peace initiative that can work. In my view, the passing of this legislation moves us further away from the context that would allow that to happen, not closer to it. This is a divisive mechanism and it is deliberate.

By the way, if I were to give up on persuasion and diplomacy, then I would look at supporting actions like this if I got legal advice from the Attorney General that it was possible to do it. I have heard the Senators' explanations in terms of the legality of the Bill but I am a Minister and I am the Tánaiste. I have to rely on the legal advice that the Government has in the Office of the Attorney General. A former Attorney General who is a Member of this House will understand that. I have very detailed advice which was not rushed and has been checked and double-checked in respect of our capacity to support the legislation and to implement it. I have to be guided somewhat by that.

My primary response is one of the politics of this given the conversations and meetings I have been involved in and the progress we are trying to make towards an outcome that can help Palestinians and that can give them some hope for the future. I will continue to pursue that despite the expectation that this legislation will pass Second Stage today. I expect it will. I respect this House and its decision. I respectfully disagree with the tactic of it in the current environment, which is a very heated one in the Middle East.

Passing the Bill would fan those flames; rather, we should ensure Ireland can create a stronger, unified position within the European Union and in discussions on the issue with key actors in the United States, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. I expect to debate the legislation again on further Stages, at which point I hope Senators will see developments along the lines I am advocating. That will show that there are other ways by which to make progress in dealing with a problem that should have been solved decades ago and which has resulted in misery, death, violence and total hopelessness, particularly in the Gaza Strip but also among a new generation on the West Bank, because of the inability of those in power to progress a peace process that I hope can find a way forward in the coming months.