I welcome Mr. Shane Dillon to this meeting. While he looks very lonely on his own, I assure him that members are not all against him. Mr. Dillon is a member of the Irish Coast Guard service and was on board theChallenger I, one of the six ships that formed an aid flotilla and which was stormed by the Israeli military early on Monday morning last. Members are keen to hear his first-hand account of the events that took place when Israeli forces boarded the flotilla of aid ships in international waters three days ago.
The joint committee had requested His Excellency, Dr. Zion Evrony, Israeli ambassador to Ireland to appear before it today. Members wish to seek answers from him regarding his Government's actions in international waters against vessels carrying humanitarian supplies for the people of Gaza and which it is understood resulted in the deaths of at least nine people. We are also particularly eager to question him regarding the Israeli Government's intentions concerning the Irish-owned ship, theMV Rachel Corrie, which is on its way to Gaza. I also should note that the Minister and his staff are keeping in contact with that situation. It is a matter of some concern that Dr. Evrony has not made himself available to meet the joint committee and has not given his assurance that his Government will allow the MV Rachel Corrie to continue unimpeded and to deliver its cargo to Gaza. I wish to record publicly this joint committee’s disappointment that the ambassador is unavailable to attend today and in the belated manner in which members were notified about this. However, I note the ambassador has undertaken to contact me with a view to rescheduling his appearance at a mutually convenient date.
In this context, members appreciate Mr. Dillon's agreement to appear before it at short notice. I ask him to provide members with a brief account of his own experience and what he witnessed during the raid. I will then give an opportunity to members to make statements on the incident and to ask Mr. Dillon questions they may have regarding his own direct experience. In addition, briefing documents have been circulated to members from the Palestinian envoy to Ireland, Dr. Hikmat Ajjuri, His Excellency Amr Helmy, Egyptian ambassador to Ireland and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. We are grateful to all concerned for so doing. In particular, I welcome the significant gesture that Egypt has made in opening the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip unconditionally and for an unlimited period to allow the smooth flow of humanitarian and medical aid into Gaza. This is very welcome. It would be useful to discuss further with the Egyptian ambassador whether this route could be used for other materials, such as the reconstruction materials for the many thousands of homes that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead. As the joint committee has always claimed, this could be managed in conjunction with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency located there, which is headed up by Mr. John Ging, who is in charge of that work.
I understand that the goods concerned are mainly humanitarian goods and do not include cement because in any event, it would not be allowed in by the Israelis. Consequently, this is one of the major problems. The humanitarian aid to which the ambassador from Egypt refers goes in under the parameters and guidelines they have for that purpose. It includes medical aid, certain foods, milk and similar goods, as well as coming and going to and from Gaza. Two very important elements of that statement are that it is unlimited and unconditional. Members are aware that the reconstruction materials, apparently even the glass for windows, has not been provided as yet, contrary to their previous understanding. There are 14,500 houses in which windows were blown out and doors were blown off during the aforementioned events and the joint committee makes a strong appeal in this regard. As these are ordinary people's homes, I cannot discern any particular problem in providing this material. Apparently however, this has not yet been done. Moreover, the joint committee's report includes details on the reconstruction work that must be done on the houses that are under the control of UNRWA, the United Nations agency. This of course requires the reconstruction materials, including glass obviously, iron and cement to finish off those houses that are two-thirds finished.
Before getting down to all the detail, while they greatly welcome the aforementioned letter, members believe they now must call strongly on the United States of America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations to insist that the windows are fixed and that the houses, which already have been two-thirds reconstructed under the auspices of the United Nations, get the cement they need. As this can be controlled by the United Nations, there is no question of such material going anywhere else. I call on both the United States and the European Union in this regard. Whatever they have to say about anything else at present, it must be clear to them that the aforementioned houses are being built with money from the United States, Ireland and the European Union. In addition, I recall that Norway and Saudi Arabia had money involved and other members might remember some of the other participants. This constituted aid to have houses built for people and although a huge amount of work was done, the supply of cement simply stopped. It is critical that they be finished. That said, I note we can return to those issues afterwards.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice and long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that members 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 their evidence to this committee. If Mr. Dillon is directed by the committee or the Chair to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter — this does not apply to Mr. Dillon alone but is a recent clarification of a position — and he continues to so do, he is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his evidence. Otherwise, he is absolutely protected in respect of the evidence he gives. People who gave evidence before the joint committee in the past were not absolutely protected. They are now, with the aforementioned single caveat. Mr. Dillon is directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and he is asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, he should not criticise or make charges against any person(s) or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
That said, I again welcome Mr. Dillon and invite him to address the joint committee.